By Andrew Osborn and Denis Dyomkin
President Vladimir Putin says Russia can scale up its military presence in Syria again within hours and would still bomb 'terrorist groups' there, despite a partial draw-down of forces ordered after military successes.
Speaking at the Kremlin three days after he ordered Russian forces to partially withdraw from Syria, the Russian leader said the smaller strike force he had left behind was big enough to help forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad keep advancing.
"I'm sure that we will see new and serious successes in the near future," Putin told an audience of more than 700 members of the military at an awards ceremony.
In particular, he said he hoped that the ancient city of Palmyra, which is held by Islamic State, would soon fall to Assad's forces.
"I hope that this pearl of world civilisation, or at least what's left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world," Putin said, referring to the World Heritage Site.
In his first public remarks since ordering the withdrawal, Putin for the first time put an approximate price tag on the Russian operation, saying that the bulk of the expenses - 33 billion roubles (NZ$704 million) - had been taken from the defence ministry's war games budget.
There would be other costs, he said, to replace ammunition and weapons as well as to make repairs.
Russian air strikes against Islamic State, Al Nusra and other terrorist groups would press on, he said, as would a wide range of measures to aid Syrian government forces including helping them plan their offensives.
Putin said he did not want to have to escalate Russia's involvement in the conflict again after the draw-down and was hoping peace talks would be successful, but made clear Russia could easily scale up its forces again.
"If necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal," he said.