Senior members of the U.S. administration have praised Russia’s successful and cost-effective military campaign in Syria, undermining U.S. President Barack Obama’s statements from earlier this year that Moscow’s involvement in the war and attempts to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government would drain its resources and see its military stuck in a long, drawn-out fight.
"I think it's indisputable that the Assad regime, with Russian military support, is probably in a safer position than it was," a senior administration official who asked to remain anonymous told Reuters on Monday. Five other unidentified U.S. officials interviewed by Reuters also said Moscow’s mission had been successful so far while successfully keeping costs low.
Since Russia became militarily involved in the Syrian war at the end of September, it’s estimated that its annual costs will come in at about $1-2 billion, which it has managed to cover using its annual military budget of $54 billion rather than needing to borrow or take from other sources.
A separate analysis puts the cost closer to $3 billion, citing the downing of the Russian aircraft by a Turkish jet in November as the primary reason for the increase in cost. Moscow was forced to bring in advanced missile defense technology to quell any future attacks and bulk up its military presence in the region. "The Russians didn't go blindly into this," said one U.S. intelligence official, adding that Russia is "getting some benefit out of the cost" by using the war as a testing ground for some of its newest technology.
While the plummeting oil prices had generally been very bad for Russia’s economy, it forced the country to ensure that it spends wisely and doesn’t get involved in expensive foreign wars. Moscow has also been able to make use of stockpiled missiles dating back to before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, according to Reuters.
"All the available data shows us that the current level of military effort is completely insignificant for the Russian economy and Russian budget," said Vasily Kashin, a Moscow-based analyst at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. "It can be carried on at the same level year after year after year."
However, one official suggested that Putin might face similar problems to the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan if the war in Syria continues. Russia has not committed any ground troops in the same way the U.S. did during the two wars in the Middle East. Despite that, Obama warned in October that any “attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work.”
The senior White House official that spoke with Reuters denied any contradiction between Obama's statement and the private analysis that Russia's campaign has been relatively effective so far. "I think the president's point has been ... it's not going to succeed in the long run," the official said. The Russians "have become bound up in a civil war in a way that's going to be extremely difficult to extricate themselves from."