President Vladimir Putin praised Russia's soldiers Thursday for their actions in Syria, boasting that the campaign demonstrated the nation's military might to the world.
Speaking at a Kremlin awards ceremony for troops who fought in Syria, Putin said Russia had "made the main, decisive contribution to the destruction of a criminal group that cast a challenge to the entire civilization." He added that that group, the Islamic State or ISIS, sought to turn Syria into a base for "global aggression" and threaten Russia.
More than 48,000 Russian troops who took part in the Syria campaign were fighting for their "homeland, for a just and fair cause," Putin added.
"Your heroic actions and professionalism helped preserve the Syrian state, stop mass killings, executions and terror against civilians," Putin told hundreds of soldiers who had 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 in his favor. With Russian air cover and special operations forces, Assad's military has routed both the ISIS militants and the rebels and seized wide swaths of land.
However, a number of human rights groups have said that Russia also targeted and killed large numbers of civilians in its bombing campaigns in Aleppo and other areas.
Putin declared victory in Syria on a visit to a Russian airbase there on Dec. 11 and ordered a partial pullout of Russian forces from the country. He said the military would maintain its presence at both the Hemeimeem airbase in Syria and a naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus.
The Russian leader said "Russia's army and navy have fully shown their increased capability and successfully used state-of-the-art weapons."
Putin noted that Russian pilots flew 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 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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.