Russia’s military has started preparing for its planned partial pullout from Syria, the defence ministry said on Tuesday, following the surprise announcement by President Vladimir Putin.
“The technical personnel at the air base has begun preparing the aircraft for the long flight to their airbases in the Russian Federation,” the ministry said in a statement. It added that equipment was being loaded on to transport aircraft which would fly home from the Russian Hmeymim air base in Syria.
Mr Putin’s announcement only covered the pullout of the “basic part” of Russia’s air force and on Tuesday the defence ministry remained silent about the strength of the force that will remain on the ground in Syria.
The defence ministry said it would keep its Hmeymim air base, which was ramped up almost from scratch ahead of Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian conflict. It will also retain its naval refuelling station at Tartus.
The Kremlin dodged questions about whether it would bring back its ground-to-air missile equipment, and in particular advanced S-400 air defence systems, which have altered the entire regional balance of military power.
Moscow deployed air defence systems and planes with air combat capability early on in the preparations for its operation in Syria last September, a move that prompted western military experts to question the Kremlin’s real intentions.
Moscow said it needed such capabilities to secure its military bases to fight Islamist militants, Isis. But western military officials argued that as Isis has no air power, Russia might be more focused on other factions fighting the regime of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad
After Turkey shot down a Russian bomber at the Syrian border late last year, Russia deployed S-400 systems in Syria, effectively denying the aircraft of western powers and their allies operations in Syrian airspace, the border with Iraq and parts of Turkey.
“They will try to make a very strong point politically that they’re promoting peace, but it would surprise me if they gave up these gains in regional military influence,” said a foreign military official in Moscow.
Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s press secretary, said he did not know whether the S-400s would be pulled out from Syria but added that he assumed based on Mr Putin’s orders that “the security of Hmeymim and Tartus must be ensured from air, land and sea”.
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