MOSCOW — Russia’s defense ministry said Tuesday that its military at the Russian air base in Syria was beginning to withdraw planes and fighter jets to return home following a pullout order from President Vladimir Putin.
The ministry said the first group of warplanes had left the Russian air base in Syria, after announcing its military personnel was loading equipment and materiel on cargo planes and getting ready for the pullout.
“The first group of Russian planes has flown out of the Hmeimim air base for their permanent bases on the territory of the Russian Federation,” the ministry said in a statement, adding that they included Su-34 bombers and a Tu-154 transport plane.
The ministry said that aircraft would leave the air base in groups consisting of one transport plane carrying technical personnel or equipment accompanied by Russian warplanes.
“Each group in this format will fly according to a prearranged route to the border of the Russia Federation and after crossing it all the planes will fly on independently to their own bases,” the statement said.
Video shown on Russian TV showed troops loading equipment onto planes amid preparations to leave Syria.
The ministry said the jets will be accompanied by military transport aircraft and will be making stops at airfields in Russia for refueling and technical checks since some of them are stationed more than 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away from the Syria base.
Announcing his decision in a televised meeting with Russia’s foreign and defense ministries, Putin said Monday that the Russian air campaign has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad’s military to “radically” turn the tide of war and helped create conditions for peace talks.
Putin didn’t specify how many planes and troops would be withdrawn. The number of Russian soldiers in Syria has not been revealed. US estimates of the number of Russian military personnel in Syria vary from 3,000 to 6,000.
Putin’s announcement of the withdrawal of most of the Russian forces from Syria a day earlier was timed to coincide with the resumption of Syria peace talks in Geneva.
The start of the negotiations in Switzerland on Monday offered Putin an opportune moment to declare an official end to the five-and-a-half-month Russian air campaign that has allowed Assad’s army to win back some key ground and strengthen his positions ahead of the talks.
With Russia’s main goals in Syria achieved, the pullback will allow Putin to pose as a peacemaker and help ease tensions with NATO member Turkey and the Gulf monarchies vexed by Moscow’s military action.
At the same time, Putin made it clear that Russia would maintain its air base and a naval facility in Syria and keep some troops there. Syria’s state news agency also quoted Assad as saying that the Russian military will draw down its air force contingent but won’t leave the country altogether.
The Syrian presidency said Assad and Putin spoke on the phone Monday and jointly agreed that Russia would scale back its forces in Syria. It rejected speculation that the decision reflected a rift between the allies and said the decision reflected the “successes” the two armies have achieved in fighting terrorism in Syria and restoring peace to key areas of the country.
The Syrian army said it would continue its operations against the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch known as the Nusra Front and other militant factions in Syria that have been designated as terrorist groups by the United Nations “with the same tempo.”