Putin may already be looking for a way out of Syria

Vladimir Putin has certainly made a big splash on the international stage with his Syrian intervention strategy. If he’s looking to make headlines (which is pretty much a given considering what we know of his history) then it’s been Mission Accomplished pretty much since the first jets showed up in Syria’s airspace. Bashar al-Assad has launched a highly touted (if strategically meaningless) ground offensive in Aleppo against his enemies under the cover of Russian air support. Putin is flexing his muscle by playing chicken with American fighters and bombers over the capital.

But after only a few weeks of pushing his snoot into the Syrian quagmire, Putin may be looking for a way out already.

With Russia’s air campaign in Syria now in its third week, Vladimir Putin has raised his nation’s global profile and proven its capability to project military power far from its borders. Now the Russian president could already be on the lookout for an exit strategy to prevent his gains from turning into a liability.

Putin certainly realizes that some 30 Russian combat jets won’t be able to change the course of the war, and allow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces to win. His apparent goals are more modest: to show all players that they will not be able to unseat Assad by force; to help cement the Syrian government’s grip on the territory it controls; and to foster political talks that could allow Moscow to protect its interests in the region.

That analysis comes to us from Vladimir Isachenkov and he’s making a number of good points. Putin is no doubt a cagey enough political manipulator to realize what he can and can’t do. Russia doesn’t possess the spare military infrastructure or the budget to move into the region in massive proportions and stay there long enough to reshape the region. (Assuming that’s even possible, because frankly I’m not even sure we could do it.) Putin is running a vanity campaign at the cost of a few hundred miserable Syrian lives which he’s more than willing to spend. He’s reassured Assad that they are still buddies while demonstrating to the rest of the planet that Russia is back on the world stage as a global player who can project force far beyond their borders.

He’s also managed to bring the Obama administration to the table in record time, setting himself up as an equal. That might be the biggest coup of all. There’s also the major bonus of keeping the international conversation focused on something besides the hell he’s been raising in Ukraine. It’s really a win-win for Putin all the way around.

But how long can it go on? For the time being he seems to be continuing his successful propaganda campaign back in the motherland. The latest polling shows 70% support for Russia’s intervention in Syria back home. I note that figure with the usual caveat that polling in Russia is notoriously unreliable. (Answering the phone and saying bad things about Vlad isn’t always conducive to a long and healthy life.) But plenty of reporting from inside the country has seemed to reflect a remaining sense of nationalism among Russians and a hunger to return to the days when their nation was wealthy, everyone had a job and the world feared, if not respected them.

Putin has accomplished all of that in a matter of only three weeks and at a relatively cheap price tag. If the bills begin to mount and no further progress is made he’ll reach a point of diminishing returns. Don’t be shocked if Russia largely pulls back in the near future, while leaving a footprint at Tartus just to keep their options in the region open.