Russian President Vladimir Putin slipped secretly into Syria last December to tell Russian soldiers they’d soon be “going home victorious.”On Thursday, he said they’d be staying put indefinitely.“They will stay there for as long as it is in Russia's interest for them to do so,” Putin declared during his most recent marathon televised Q&A session in Moscow.The long-running Syrian civil war was just one of a dizzying array of topics Putin covered during his 16th annual four-hour call-in program, in what’s become a carefully-staged Russian tradition that observers say serves to demonstrate both his connection with ordinary folks and his complete dominance over Russia’s political sphere.
On live TV, Putin fielded 79 questions from supposedly average folks, offering up detailed explanations of government policies and ordering subordinates to take immediate action to solve normal people’s problems. Over almost four and a half hours, the 65-year-old Putin, ever the picture of authority, didn’t pause for a bathroom break.Regarding Syria, where he has previously portrayed Russia’s almost three-year-long military intervention as victorious and all but over, this time, Putin tweaked his message.“We are not building long-term facilities there and if needed we could fairly quickly withdraw our troops without material losses,” he said. “But for the moment, we need them there. They are carrying out important tasks, including providing security for Russia in the region, and helping our interests in the economic sphere.”Putin’s latest remarks represent an acknowledgement of reality rather than a policy shift, said Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst focusing on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies.Russia’s intentions to stay in Syria for the long haul have been readily apparent to close observers, she said, as the country seeks to enhance its role throughout the Middle East even while Putin downplays the potential costs of the long-running Syrian military intervention to his constituents at home.Putin’s “mission accomplished” moment last December wasn’t even the first time Russia has announced a drawdown. A Russian general, for example, made a similar announcement the previous January.“They wanted to increase their influence in the region from the beginning, and that's exactly what they are doing,” Borshchevskaya told VICE News. “They had no intentions to leave before. This is not a change. They just never said it directly, perhaps.”Russian forces intervened decisively in Syria’s civil war in late 2015 to prop up embattled dictator Bashar Assad. Since then, Russia and Iran have emerged as Assad’s primary foreign backers, keeping his regime in place even as the conflict grinds on.Cover image: Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures answers a question during his annual call-in show in Moscow, Thursday, June 7, 2018. Putin hosts call-in shows every year, which typically provide a platform for ordinary Russians to appeal to the president on issues ranging from foreign policy to housing and utilities. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)