In late February 2019 Russia began a two month “victory tour” using 20-car railroad train filled with Syrian War souvenirs. Several flatbed cars carried combat vehicles captured from Islamic terrorists while enclosed cars were fitted out as exhibit spaces showing smaller items as well as visuals of Russian military accomplishments during more than three years of operations in Syria. The tour traveled 28,000 kilometers and passed through sixty towns and cities. Government controlled media gave the tour lots of publicity, especially as it was about to arrive in a specific location.
The Russian military operations in Syria were never very popular, at least according to opinion polls and Internet chatter complaining about a family member who was killed there. Early on there were a lot of protests from families that had a son serving as a conscript in the military who ended up in Syria or Ukraine. Because of growing public pressure after the Cold War ended in 1991 conscription service had been reduced to one year and laws were eventually passed making it illegal to send conscripts to fight in “foreign wars”. The government tried to do it anyway and keep it quiet.
Despite continuing efforts by the military to prevent troops in Syria from using their cell phones to record and post on social media their experiences in Syria, such material continues to appear. Public protests over Russian involvement in the Syrian war, which began in late 2015, faded away by 2017, partly because the government kept conscripts out of Syria, and partly because Russians became more concerned over the declining economy and standard of living than who was being sent to Syria. More Russians were living in poverty and that was a problem much closer to home. Since 2013 the price of oil, the major Russian export, had fallen by more than half and never really recovered to the original levels. In 2015 economic sanctions were imposed in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That became yet another unpopular war.
The victory tour train cheered up some Russians but it also generated public protests over the continuing Russian military operations in Syria. The state-controlled media ignored the protests in some cities visited by the victory tour train but people with cell phones got pictures and video onto the Internet. No wonder Russia is still trying to cut itself, or at least the general public, off from the World Wide Web.
Earlier the government had portrayed Russian operations in Syria as an excellent opportunity to get combat experience for new Russian weapons and military equipment and thus increase export sales. This worked and the government publicized the resulting sales. Ignored was the fact that potential enemies (the West in general but also China) got to discover the shortcomings of the Russian gear used in Syria. That was only mentioned in Russian media when it resulted in additional “upgrades” to weapons and equipment.
As a practical matter, not many Russians were personally hurt or helped by the Syrian operations. Only about 80,000 Russian military personnel and contractors (former military serving at much higher pay scales) served in Syria since 2015 and there were never more than 4,500 Russians in Syria at one time. After 2016 the average number of Russians there was about 2,000. Casualties were low with about one in 200 Russians killed and nearly two percent wounded or otherwise injured while there. The special pay for service in Syria enticed many Russian military personnel to volunteer and even return several times. For pilots and special operations troops Syria was a well-paid/low-risk opportunity to get some flight time and combat experience. For career military personnel this enhanced career prospects. Several hundred thousand Russians benefitted from the additional jobs and work opportunities the increased export sales generated as well as the military getting additional cash to replace expensive weapons used and to maintain the new aircraft that saw heavy use in Syria.
For most of the time, Russian troops have been in Syria the main activity has been providing air support for Syrian government forces and technical assistance for rebuilding the Syrian military and large quantities of battle damaged or worn out weapons. The air operations have been the most expensive item, costing over two billion dollars so far, even though most of the bombs dropped were “dumb” rather than guided weapons. Most of the airstrikes were against urban areas in support of the Syrian government strategy of encouraging pro-rebel civilians to flee the country. About six million Syrians did flee and few want to come back. During the first year of Russian operations, the air operations were most intense, with up to two thousand sorties a month. But once the Syrian forces were no longer threatened with defeat, the air operations declined and after about 40 months there have been about 40,000 sorties. Some months there are only a few hundred aircraft going out on a mission, which is often just reconnaissance or standby for a possible target showing up in the few areas where there was still fighting.
Back home, as most Russians saw their income shrink and standard of living decline, they noted that the government was not doing much to help, pleading poverty and massive budget cuts. At that point, several billion dollars a year being spent in Syria became a very real, and often very personal loss for a growing number of Russians. The victory tour train was a reminder of that more than some kind of military victory. So the reappearance of Syria war protestors was as much about economic defeats at home as it was about military operations overseas.