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Russian military officials are claiming daily successes in Syria, saying that they're striking terrorist targets. The Russian bombing campaign is now in its third week. The United States and its Western allies question Russia's goals, and they also doubt whether Russia's military can sustain its commitment long enough to make a difference in the war. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The nightly news on Russia's state-run television is full of the whine of jet engines as warplanes launch sorties from a dusty airfield in Syria. Russia has just over 30 fixed-wing combat planes in Syria. The Ministry of Defense says these planes are flying dozens of missions every day. America learned in its Middle East wars that these options can quickly demand more troops and equipment than was originally planned. But Russian analysts say their force is big enough for its current mission. I met with Evgeny Buzhinsky, a retired lieutenant general, at a cafe in Moscow.
EVGENY BUZHINSKY: Actually, we don't need a huge contingent of air force in Syria because the Russian Air Force plays the role of aviation support to the ground forces.
FLINTOFF: Buzhinsky says Russia's effort will be more effective than that of the United States because it's coordinated with President Assad's Syrian army. He says the Russian military can keep its troops supplied with equipment and ammunition, at least for a limited mission. And if more force is needed, he adds, there are also these.
(SOUNDBITE OF CRUISE MISSILE LAUNCH)
FLINTOFF: Cruise missiles, which Russia has demonstrated it can fire from ships based in the Caspian Sea more than 900 miles away.
BUZHINSKY: Of course, that was a surprise for the United States, which though they had - the only one country which had the privilege of launching long-range cruise missiles.
FLINTOFF: NATO said that at least four of those missiles went astray, crashing in the Iranian countryside. But Russia's Ministry of Defense has denied that. But what about the danger of being drawn into wider involvement on the ground, say, if one of Russia's jets malfunctions and a pilot is forced to eject? Won't more ground troops be needed to rescue him, especially if he falls into the hands of the Islamic State, which has shown its willingness to publicly torture enemy pilots to death?
BUZHINSKY: On the ground, Russian air group is relying on the support and help of the Syrian Armed Forces.
FLINTOFF: Does that mean that the Syrian Armed Forces are providing force protection for Russians?
BUZHINSKY: I hope so. I hope so.
FLINTOFF: Not everyone is so optimistic about Russia's prospects in Syria. I called defense analyst Alexander Golts, who says that Russia can sustain its operation if it sticks to a limited role in the war. But, he says, the danger of being pulled into wider involvement on the ground is very real because Russia's airbase is not far from the battle zone. Russia already has a contingent of Marines to protect the pilots and their planes.
ALEXANDER GOLTS: If this battle group of Marines will not be enough to protect the base, you have to deployed new forces. So you deploy more troops. Then you have more casualties.
FLINTOFF: And though the Russian public is supporting the Syria campaign now, he says, it may not accept the loss of its soldiers in a foreign war. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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