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MOSCOW (AP) — President Vladimir Putin praised Russian soldiers Thursday for their actions in Syria, saying the Russian campaign there has demonstrated the might of the nation's revamped military to the world.
Speaking at a Kremlin awards ceremony for troops who fought in Syria, Putin says Russia has "made the main, decisive contribution to the destruction of a criminal group that cast a challenge to the entire civilization." He added that the Islamic State group was seeking to turn Syria into a base for "global aggression" and threaten Russia.
Putin said the more than 48,000 Russian troops who took part in the Syria campaign were fighting for their "homeland, for a just and fair cause."
"Your heroic actions and professionalism helped preserve the Syrian state, stop mass killings, executions and terror against civilians," Putin told hundreds of soldiers who gathered in the Kremlin's opulent, gold-and-white St. George's Hall.
Russia launched a campaign in Syria on Sept. 30, 2015 when Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was on the verge of collapse, quickly turning the tide of conflict in his favor. Thanks to Russian air cover and its special operations forces, Assad's military has routed both the IS militants and the rebels and seized wide swathes of land.
Putin declared victory in Syria on a visit to the Russian air base there on Dec. 11 and ordered a partial pullout of Russian forces from the country. He emphasized that the military will maintain its presence at both the Hemeimeem air base in Syria and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus.
"They are an important factor in protecting our national interests, ensuring Russia's security in one of the key strategic regions," Putin said.
The Russian leader emphasized that "Russia's army and navy have fully shown their increased capability and successfully used state-of-the-art weapons."
Putin noted that Russian pilots had flown 34,000 combat missions over Syria during the campaign and the Russian military conducted 166 launches of high-precision cruise missiles.
The Syrian operation marked the combat debut of an array of new weapons for Russia, including cruise missiles launched from warships, submarines and strategic bombers. The new missiles gave the Russian military a long-sought, long-range precision cruise capability that only the U.S. had before.
"The army has radically changed," Putin said. "It has changed because people have felt themselves on top, which was very important, and also because they saw how our weapons work. The entire world saw it, and our people saw it."
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