• Artillery, intelligence, tank officers among those honored
  • Ceremony shows `real scale' of Russian operation, analyst says

When Vladimir Putin awarded medals to military officers for their service in Syria amid the glittering splendor of the Kremlin’s St. George’s Hall, he shone a spotlight on the possible extent of Russian involvement in that country’s war.

Servicemen honored by the president on Thursday for the campaign of airstrikes in support of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad included not only pilots but also artillery and tank officers, communication specialists and intelligence officers.

“All of you –- pilots, sailors, service personnel of control bodies, of special purpose units, intelligence, communication and procurement, military advisers –- acted consistently and with precision,” Putin said after presenting 17 awards to officers at a ceremony attended by more than 700 members of the armed forces and defense industries.

Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of forces on Monday after more than five months of military operations in Syria. The campaign created “conditions for the start” of peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition groups to help resolve the five-year war, he said. Some Russian forces are staying in Syria to oversee a cease-fire that took effect last month and continue the fight against Islamic State, he said.

‘Real Scale’

With the awards ceremony, “Putin has shown that the real scale of Russian operations in Syria was much bigger than was shown to the international community,” Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow, said by phone on Thursday. “Everyone has been shown warplanes, but there were artillery, tanks and special units.”

While Russian state television has carried daily reports about the return home of fighter jets and bombers this week, they haven’t mentioned other military personnel praised by Putin at the Kremlin. Pilots were the only officers permitted by the Defense Ministry to talk to reporters after the ceremony.

Those presented with medals included a commander of the First Tank Army and three artillery officers from different regiments, including Andrei Podolsky, deputy commander of a howitzer battery of the 120th Artillery Brigade.

Artillery officers awarded medals for service in Syria acted as military advisers, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said by phone. An artillery officer and a special forces soldier were among four Russian servicemen killed in Syria, he said.

Troops from the 120th Artillery Brigade have been spotted deep inside Syria and operated near the ancient city of Palmyra, according to Anton Lavrov, an independent military analyst. Islamic State seized the city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in May last year and have drawn universal condemnation for destroying ancient monuments and ruins.

There’s “intense fighting” around Palmyra now, Putin told the assembled officers. “I hope that this treasure of world civilization, or whatever is left of it after the bandits got there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the whole world.”

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