MOSCOW — Russia could rebuild its military presence in Syria in a matter of hours and will maintain powerful air defenses in the country for the foreseeable future, President Vladimir Putin said Thursday, as he boasted of a deployment that rescued Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from near defeat.
Putin’s robust backing for Assad at a Kremlin awards ceremony tamped down widespread expectations that he would now lean on the Syrian president to be more flexible at Geneva peace talks.
Speaking briefly at a gathering of veterans of the six-month intervention, Putin portrayed the combat operation as a success that cost Russia little and demonstrated the country’s “indisputable leadership, will and responsibility” in fighting terrorism.
He also issued a warning, saying Russia would respond with force if its remaining military assets in Syria came to harm.
“Our systems will be used against any targets that we will see as a threat to Russian servicemen,” Putin said, referring to the powerful S-400 antiaircraft missiles and other systems that Russia is maintaining at its air base in Syria.
Putin announced Monday that Russia was beginning a partial withdrawal from Syria, catching much of the world by surprise. The move was seen by many analysts as one that would put pressure on Assad to reach an accommodation in Geneva.
But as talks between Assad and the Syrian opposition continue this week, Putin said Thursday that Russian forces could return to an “appropriate strength” at the base in just hours if the need arises. He also said that the balance of power between Assad and his enemies “will be ensured” despite the Russian pullout, suggesting that the Kremlin remains committed to preventing the ouster of Assad by force, even if that means another Russian deployment.
“Bearing in mind our support and the strengthening of the Syrian army, I am sure we will see new successes of patriotic forces in fighting terrorism in the near future,” Putin said.
Putin’s zig-zagging moves this week — first seemingly to give Assad a push with the pullout, then backing him again on Thursday — will give Secretary of State John F. Kerry much to discuss in Moscow next week. He plans a visit to work out prospects for peace after the Russian intervention.
Putin underlined Russia’s continuing support for Syrian troops, with funding and training.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem took an uncompromising line ahead of the talks last week, leading Russian analysts and U.S. officials to conclude that Assad was more interested in reconquering all the territory he has lost than in striking deals with the opposition.
Putin’s motives in Syria — always somewhat opaque — had appeared to put more emphasis on general stability in the war-torn country than on Assad’s political survival. But Putin on Thursday sought to bolster his strongest Arab ally.
Assad was “informed of our plans in advance and supported them,” Putin said, adding that “we see his restraint, sincere aspiration for peace, and his preparedness for compromise and dialogue.”
Syrian officials also have sought to put the best face on the Russian withdrawal, saying it was done in consultation with Assad. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday that although Putin had informed Assad of his decision shortly before it was announced publicly, Assad had had no input or choice in the matter.
Assad’s envoys appeared as intransigent as ever this week in Geneva. During days of U.N.-brokered shuttle diplomacy, they gave no ground to opposition demands.
The lack of progress during the talks may endanger the tenuous three-week-old cease-fire, rebels already see it as cementing the government’s recent battlefield gains.
Putin said Thursday that any rebel group that breaks the cease-fire, even those on a list of moderate groups the U.S. government has supplied to Russia, would face swift consequences. The United States has charged that Syrian government forces are responsible for virtually every breach of the ceasefire thus far, and have called on Putin to bring Assad to heel.
After large investments to reform Russia’s military and on the heels of a hybrid intervention in Ukraine, Russia flexed its new military muscle in Syria, scene of the country’s first intervention outside the borders of the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War. Besides employing punishing airstrikes that critics say targeted not terrorists but more-moderate opponents of Assad, Russia also showed off new high-tech weapons such as ship-based cruise missiles.
Putin also said the operation has been done on the cheap: He put the total cost at about $480 million over the 167-day intervention, or about $2.9 million a day. That number is broadly in keeping with estimates from independent military analysts. The low figure suggests that although Russia is in the middle of a painful economic crisis caused in part by the sagging price of oil, it has not lost its ability to project muscular force far from its borders.
Hugh Naylor in Geneva and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.