Russian pilots back from Syria get rousing welcome
Several Su-34 strike fighters landed at an airbase outside the city of Voronezh located some 580 kilometres (360 miles) southeast of Moscow after performing a fly-past for top commanders, relatives and supporters.
After pilots disembarked from the aircraft they were tossed in the air in celebration as cheering supporters clutched flags, flowers and balloons, national television showed in a live broadcast.
Critics say that after the start of Russia’s aerial campaign in Syria in September, Moscow’s powerful propaganda machine shifted its attention from the nearly non-stop coverage of the Ukraine conflict to Syria, the country’s first major military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the occupation of Afghanistan in 1979.
After Putin’s surprise order to start pulling back troops the start of the withdrawal of forces from Syria is now being presented on Russian television as nothing short of a victory.
“The Syrian army received a huge support,” said Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force, Viktor Bondarev, praising the work of the country’s air force in Syria.
“Thanks to your work in Syria, international terrorism sustained significant losses,” he told the pilots in televised remarks.
He indicated that Russia’s full-scale military presence was no longer needed, adding that the Syrian army, the opposition and other forces would be able to crush the remaining “terrorist gangs” - apparently referring to the Islamic State group and Al-Nusra Front - by themselves.
He also appeared to address claims by rights groups and monitors that accused Russian armed forces of targeting civilians, saying that not a single Russian warplane in Syria missed its target and that civilians would “not hold grudges” against Moscow. After the official greeting ceremony, the pilots received flowers from women who chanted “congratulations.”
Putin launched a bombing campaign in Syria on September 30, saying Moscow needed to target Islamic State jihadists before they cross into Russia.
Yesterday, the Russian strongman said the country’s military goal was “on the whole” completed after a campaign of five-and-a-half months and 9,000 sorties.
Many analysts said the danger of a costly protracted war similar to the Soviet Union’s 10-year involvement in Afghanistan was not lost on the Kremlin, with Putin deciding to pull the forces out amid a relative lull in fighting and peace talks.