- By Siobhán O'GradySiobhán O’Grady is a freelance journalist working across sub-Saharan Africa. She previously worked as a staff writer at Foreign Policy., Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Russian troops in Syria claim in a TV interview that they’ve “been there since the beginning and will stay to the end.” But for now, neither they — nor anyone else — knows just when that “end” will come.
New interviews with Russian troops dispatched to Syria, published by France24 Thursday, feature clips of Putin’s army deployed near Latakia, where Russia has built up its military presence in recent months.
The soldiers, who asked that their faces remain hidden, told the French television station that they don’t know how much longer they will be required to stay in Syria but assume it won’t be too much longer because the campaign is going “very well.”
Russia has come under intense international scrutiny for reportedly targeting U.S.-backed rebels instead of the Islamic State. On Monday, 45 people were reportedly killed in a Russian strike.
One soldier, identified by France24 as a military advisor sent to Latakia to help train members of the Syrian military, said he isn’t very happy with the trainees’ attitudes.
“You know, the Syrians have everything they need [including] tanks…but the mentality isn’t there,” he said.
He went on to compare the behavior of Syrians to that of Chechens, saying “these guys just sell everything to the enemy” in what may have been a reference to Moscow’s bungled military and financial support for Chechen opposition groups to overthrow Dzhokar Dudayev, who declared Chechnya independent from Russia in the early 1990s, before Moscow ultimately sent in its own ground forces in 1994 at the onset of the First Chechen War.
In another interview in the same short clip, a different Russian soldier asks the French reporter if she remembers the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, when Russia backed separatists from Abkhazia and South Ossetian and briefly occupied a number of Georgian cities.
“You remember the war in Ossetia?” he says. “These are the same generals from the 58th Army who were sent here. It’s them who are leading the military operations here.”
According to Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, if true, the presence of the 58th could signal that Moscow is prepared for a long presence in Syria. “Putin is not a strategist, it doesn’t look like he has fully thought through the Syrian intervention,” she told Foreign Policy.
And Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russian security told FP that granular details such as who specifically is on the ground in Latakia are hard to confirm. But if there are members of the 58th Army there, they are likely a small minority who were plucked from other posts to oversee specific operations. The majority of the troops on the ground belong to the air force because they’re there to fly bombers and drones, which make up the brunt of the Russian military presence in Syria.
“Russians pull together bits and pieces from other units as they happen to have available and as meets the needs for the case,” he said.
There have been various reports in Russian media that mercenary-types are recruiting heavily for more Russians to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. However, according to Galeotti, so far the recruiters have found most of their fighters in the Donbass region, which he said could be a win-win for Moscow, which may be trying to disengage from conflict in the Donbass as it pivots to Syria.
“If you can get some of these gung-ho volunteer types from the Donbass to Syria, you’re killing two birds with one stone,” Galeotti said. “You’ve got some warm bodies in Syria and fewer in the Donbass.”
Photo credit: EPA/RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE/HANDOUT