Russia is willing to keep its forces in Syria despite the potential losses incurred because the Kremlin believes that the benefits outweigh the costs. From the Russian perspective, Moscow’s campaign in Syria affords the Kremlin invaluable combat experience that is helping it to refine the capabilities of its military forces.
“The use of our armed forces in combat conditions is a unique experience and a unique tool to improve our armed forces,” Russian president Vladimir Putin said during a televised public question and answer session on June 7. “No exercises can compare with actually using the armed forces in combat conditions.”
Gaining Combat Experience
In the Kremlin’s view, one of the most important reasons for Russia to continue its campaign in Syria is to further refine its newly developed precision-guided strike capability. “Syria is not a shooting range for Russian weapons, but we are still using them there, our new weapons,” Putin said. “This has led to the improvement of modern strike systems, including missile systems. It is one thing to have them, and quite another thing to see how they fare in combat conditions.”
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Putin noted that Syria has also proven to be important for Russia’s defense industry—which has gained valuable insights into how the Kremlin’s forces use their hardware in combat. “When we started to use these modern weapons, including missiles, whole teams from our defense industry companies went to Syria, and worked there on-site—it is extremely important for us—to finalize them and figure out what we can count on when using them in combat conditions,” Putin said.
Russia’s Syrian Proving Ground
But Syria has proven to be more than just a proving ground for Russia’s military technology. The Syria campaign has helped Russia to further develop its military leaders and provided its officer corps with actual combat experience. That, in turn, has allowed Russian forces to vastly improve their tactics, techniques and procedures.
“Our commanders – we had a large number of officers and generals go in Syria and take part in these hostilities – began to understand what a modern armed conflict is, how important communication, intelligence, interaction between all-arms units and formations is, how important it is to ensure the effective operation of the aerospace group, aviation, ground forces, including special operations forces,” Putin said. “This has enabled us to take another major step in improving our armed forces.”
Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses specializing in Russian military affairs, noted that the Kremlin’s war in Syria has proven to be invaluable to Moscow as a de facto live-fire training range. “Much of the senior military staff has rotated through Syria, and so has a substantial percentage of the air force,” Kofman said. “Most of the district commanders and combined arms army commanders have spent time on staff in Syria. Syria is now the good war, designed to bloody the Russian armed forces and a sustainable training pipeline for senior officers.”
Indeed, much of the funding for the Kremlin’s Syria campaign is drawn from the Russian military’s training budget. “Money for the war is taken from the combat training part of the military budget,” Vasily Kashin, a senior fellow at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, said. “All of the new equipment was combat tested there—even the types not yet approved for serial production, tens of thousands of officers got real combat experience. Spending the same amount of money on training would not get the same results.”
Regarding training and lessons learned, the Russians believe that the war is essentially cost neutral. “Of course, it is extremely important and, in a sense, it is paying for itself,” Kashin said.
The most important lesson the Russian military has learned in Syria is the need for airpower to coordinate closely with ground forces. “In Syria, first, the Russian Aerospace Forces learned how to fight, and then increasingly began to learn how to fight in support of ground forces,” Kofman said. “Here special forces units and advisers fought a separate battle, but increasingly they began to integrate air power with ground operations in real time.”
The Russian military also quickly learned the limitations of its sensors and weapons systems. “The Russians quickly figured out that while they had the platforms, their weapons and systems were still inadequate for precision employment,” Kofman said. “The SVP-24 [computerized bomb-sights] added considerable accuracy, but they had to fly too high, and ultimately Russian munitions are far too big for the job. Eventually, the helicopter force came in as one of the few components that has the ability to deliver PGMs [precision-guided munitions] against moving targets.”