Russian Security Strategy
Russia "became involved in the Syrian conflict to demonstrate its military capabilities and gain leverage with the West, this operation is peripheral to Russia’s main interests." Russia's main interest is the motherland itself. "But as you can tell from these maps, the key country for Russia after 1991 was Ukraine. The Baltics were beyond reach for now, and Belarus had a pro-Russian government. But either way, Ukraine was the key, because the Ukrainian border went through the agricultural heartland of Russia, as well as large population centers and transportation networks." This also meant that Russia needed to be "involved fighting Chechen insurgents on their side of the frontier, intervening in Georgia, sending troops to Armenia, and so on."
Friedman ends, "With regard to the current battle over Ukraine, the Russians have to assume that the Euro-American interest in creating a pro-Western regime has a purpose beyond Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, not only have they lost a critical buffer zone, but Ukrainian forces hostile to Russia have moved toward the Russian border. It should be noted that the area that the Russians defend most heavily is the area just west of the Russian border, buying as much space as they can.
The fact that this scenario leaves Russia in a precarious position means that the Russians are unlikely to leave the Ukrainian question where it is. Russia does not have the option of assuming that the West’s interest in the region comes from good intentions. At the same time, the West cannot assume that Russia—if it reclaims Ukraine—will stop there. Therefore, we are in the classic case where two forces assume the worst about each other. But Russia occupies the weaker position, having lost the first tier of the European Peninsula. It is struggling to maintain the physical integrity of the Motherland.
Russia does not have the ability to project significant force because its naval force is bottled up and because you cannot support major forces from the air alone. Although it became involved in the Syrian conflict to demonstrate its military capabilities and gain leverage with the West, this operation is peripheral to Russia’s main interests. The primary issue is the western frontier and Ukraine. In the south, the focus is on the Caucasus.
It is clear that Russia’s economy, based as it is on energy exports, is in serious trouble given the plummeting price of oil in the past year and a half. But Russia has always been in serious economic trouble. Its economy was catastrophic prior to World War II, but it won the war anyway… at a cost that few other countries could bear. Russia may be a landlocked and poor country, but it can nonetheless raise an army of loyal Spartans. Europe is wealthy and sophisticated, but its soldiers have complex souls. As for the Americans, they are far away and may choose not to get involved. This gives the Russians an opportunity. However bad their economy is at the moment, the simplicity of their geographic position in all respects gives them capabilities that can surprise their opponents and perhaps even make the Russians more dangerous."
SideBar: About the USSR/Russia winning WWII, it is not clear they would have been successful without America support, and provision of massive amounts of arms, logistics elements, food, and fuel. America provided thousands of air planes, thousands of train cars, thousands of trucks and jeeps, fuel, munitions, and much else. Without these it is unclear whether the USSR would have been able to move its "loyal Spartans" to the battle front, fuel its tanks, American trucks, American Jeeps, American air craft, American munitions, and accordingly whether it could have continued fighting.
Back to the point, Syria was always a sideshow for Putin, who needed a way to demonstrate its military capabilities. This was needed to keep the locals in check, and to give the Chechenyans, Georgians, Ukrainians, and the Baltic nations a graphic explanation of what could be in store. Add to this the fact that Russia is facing the same existential problem which triggered the collapse of the former Soviet Union (an oil price collapse), and one can see why Putin would only remain in Syria as long as was necessary to make his point.
If oil prices had remained high Putin would have remained in Syria, teaching a tutorial on how to make a point. But the price collapsed, and Putin is faced with continuing security concerns in the Baltics, Georgia, Chechenya, Ukraine, as well as the collapsing Russian economy at home.
And so, Putin came, bombed, and left, and in the end this short shrift of a campaign will make an impression, and likely one negative to the one intended. While this campaign did show Russian capability, it also showed that Russia lacks endurance. This could quite easily backfire on Putin, with the very problems he wishes to avoid rising up to challenge his resolve, and Russia's endurance.
Only time will tell.