There has been much sensational media attention over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to shore up Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, with hints that it could even be the start of a second Afghanistan for Russia. But there are strong incentives for Russia to fight in a limited role in Syria. The New York Times recently highlighted this, detailing how Russia under Putin has been keen on advancing its military prowess and Syria has therefore become Russia’s proving ground. In this sense, the Kremlin's military actions in Ukraine and Syria are no mistake, but rather stepping stones toward a larger Russian strategic goal.
Besides the obvious reasons—supporting an ally who secures regional interests and landing an embarrassing blow to the Obama administration’s Middle East policy—Russia’s military is continuing its march toward professionalization. Putin has been showcasing the advances made by his country’s military through the use of precision strikes and cruise missile attacks, even launching one from a submarine this week. The testing and refining of new weapons systems is enabling air crews, professional soldiers and Special Forces to gain valuable combat experience.
Sanctions, economic blowback and Western ire aside, the Russians have been able to significantly close the gap with other modern militaries. The myth that Russia will be leveling cities in Syria needs to be left behind, as Putin and his regime are keen on creating the image of a modern, technologically advanced military. There is evidence that the intervention in Syria will be rather limited. Michael Kofman has observed a creeping involvement in Ukraine, as part of a Russian strategy in which the calculus of force has been very cautious and aimed at minimal loss of Russian military personnel. To this end, Russian military units were only directly involved when separatist forces were starting to suffer setbacks. Russia has only moved to bolster Assad’s regime after the Syrian Army suffered losses at the hands of rebels over the course of four years.