MOSCOW — Russia portrayed last month’s drawdown from Syria as a victory and a homecoming after a six-month deployment in which its air force turned the tide of the long-running conflict. So it was a surprise when Russian state outlets reported in recent days that powerful new Russian helicopters were seeing Syrian combat for the first time.
Even after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden March 14 announcement that cut short Russia’s Syrian deployment, officials said they would maintain a muscular presence on twin air and naval bases in coastal Syria. But the current level of activity would suggest that the pullout has been minor at best, despite last month’s fanfare — returning aviators were greeted with bouquets and brass bands, while military officials declared victory — and Russian officials’ insistence that they have withdrawn from Syria.
The discrepancy leaves the Kremlin running a large-scale operation in war-torn Syria even as Russia’s powerful state media insists otherwise. The Russian activities on the ground are a sign that the Kremlin has little intention of dialing back support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia also does not appear ready to cede space in Syria to other nations involved there, including the United States.
The Kremlin has portrayed its Syrian operations as successful in helping Russia elbow its way back to the international negotiating table after the isolation that followed its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. It appears committed to holding on to its spot.
“Our active efforts in combating international terrorism have gone some way to improve our relations with the leading powers,” Putin said Thursday.
Now, Russian minesweepers are checking Palmyra’s ancient ruins for explosives. Russian military advisers are whipping Syrian government forces into shape and planning attacks. Russian special forces are on the front lines, calling in targeting information for airstrikes. Russian warships continue to steam through the Bosporus and deliver supplies to Assad.
The activity comes in a nation with a bitter history of far-flung military operations: The Soviet Union’s Afghanistan intervention helped hasten the Soviet system’s demise. But Putin, by announcing the pullout, has lowered the stakes for Russia’s Syrian deployment while easing some of the pressure that had built over more than five months of a grueling operational tempo, diplomats and analysts say.
Even if the activities remain the same, the goals appear to have changed. Putin said in September that Russia was going to defeat the Islamic State. This week, he said that Russia had fulfilled its goals in Syria — which he said were to keep Assad in power and strike a blow against Assad’s opponents.
Russia’s combat sorties have dropped since the peak of the Russian airstrike effort in February. At one point, Russia was flying nearly 100 sorties a day. It was flying 20 to 25 late last month in its campaign to take Palmyra back from the Islamic State, according to a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman.
“Now there is the beginning of a peaceful process, but unfortunately the peaceful process will stop if Russia stops military activities,” said Vladimir Yevseyev, a Middle East military expert at the Moscow-based Center for Social and Political Studies who has tracked Russian military activity in Syria.
But if warplanes have stilled their engines, helicopters are taking a newly prominent role in the fighting. Last month, the Kremlin-owned Sputnik news website said that brand-new Mi-28N attack helicopters fired antitank missiles against Islamic State armored vehicles near Palmyra.
On Tuesday, one of the advanced Russian helicopter gunships crashed in Syria, killing two Russian crew members aboard, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
The Mi-28N helicopter was not shot down, the ministry’s press service said, and the bodies of the two crew members were recovered in a rescue operation. The reason for the crash was not immediately given, although Russian state media reports suggested adverse weather conditions may have played a role.
And last week, Russian Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” helicopters took part in the Syrian government effort to retake al-Qaryatayn, a central Syrian city in between Damascus and Palmyra, Sputnik reported. Syrian state news published a video of the combat. The Ka-52 helicopters are an advanced, highly maneuverable aircraft.
The helicopters “are tested there now, yes, and they show very good results,” said Ivan Konovalov, a military analyst who is the director of the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Conjunctures. “The targets that are set for them are destroyed.”
Western diplomats, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments, said they believe about one-third of the Russian fixed-wing aircraft were pulled from Syria in the days after the withdrawal announcement; they are unsure when the helicopters were sent in.
The current Russian military activity is broadly considered in keeping with a late-February cease-fire because it is supporting the fight against the Islamic State, which was not included in the truce. Russian forces have held to the cease-fire, even as forces loyal to Assad have not, officials say.
Russian officials have also offered fresh clarity about the extent to which Syrian government advances since last fall were the product of their assistance. Russian military advisers embedded with the Syrian army on the ground after the beginning of Russian operations in September, said Col. Gen. Alexander Dvornikov, the commander of Russian forces in Syria, in an interview late last month with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian government.
“Our advisers were most actively involved in planning combat operations, and that surely helped to improve the situation,” Dvornikov said. The advisers also helped during combat and trained Syrian forces on how to use Russian equipment, Dvornikov said.
Dvornikov also made the first official acknowledgment that Russian special forces were operating on the ground in Syria, after months in which Russia insisted that it was operating only in Syrian skies. The special forces do reconnaissance of possible targets, call in airstrikes and perform “other special tasks,” he said.
Six Russian servicemen are officially acknowledged to have died during combat in Syria, and the Russian media has reported on an additional two dead men who may have been working for private military contractors. The Russian Defense Ministry recently posted a tender commissioning 10,000 medals for participation in the Syrian operations.
At least two battalions of Russian troops, or 800 people, are expected to remain in Syria long-term, said Viktor Ozerov, the chairman of the Defense and Security Committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, immediately after the pullout announcement.
Russia has long had a small military presence at its Tartus naval base on the Syrian coast. It now also operates the Khmeimim air base, in Latakia province, where it plans to leave in place its S-400 antiaircraft weapon system, which gives Russia effective control over Syrian airspace. And it can redeploy its warplanes in a matter of hours.
That Putin announced the pullback at all may be a sign that he was cautious about overcommitting to Syria, said Ruslan Pukhov, a military analyst who leads the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
“Putin understands his voters, the Russian people, much better than any leader before him till Stalin,” Pukhov said. “We have a painful experience of Afghanistan. The first signs that people were worried, they already appeared.”