At the Expanded Meeting of the Defense Ministry Board on December 11, 2015, Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu discussed the military aspects of Russia's foreign policy, including its intervention in the Middle East and its deployment vis-a-vis NATO.
Putin stressed that Russia's involvement in Syria was designed to prevent a direct threat to Russia, and that Russia would act harshly against anyone threatening its forces there. He stated explicitly that the Russian forces in Syria were helping not only Assad's army but also the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with air cover and with weapons, with an eye to "uniting the efforts" of the regime army and the FSA in fighting the terrorists. Discussing the general capabilities of the Russian military, he spoke of the need to intensify combat training and increase the army's abilities to confront every kind of threat.
Shoygu highlighted NATO's steady expansion, especially in regions close to Russia's borders, including NATO's nuclear deployment, and stressed Russia's ability to "guarantee nuclear deterrence."
At the December 11 meeting, Putin emphasized that Russia's involvement in Syria was not aimed at testing new weapons. However, at a December 8, 2015 meeting with Shoygu, he mentioned that the fighting in Syria was providing opportunities to test new systems, such as missiles launched from submarines, and hinted at the possibility of equipping such missiles with nuclear warheads in the future.
The following are excerpts from an English translation of their statements published on the Kremlin website. See also MEMRI Daily Brief "Adding Russian To MEMRI's Priority Languages."
Vladimir Putin (right) and Sergey Shoygu (image: themoscowtimes.com)
Statements By President Putin
"Our actions were not dictated by some incomprehensible abstract geopolitical interests [or] by the desire to test new weapons systems, which in itself is also important... The main objective is to prevent a threat to the Russian Federation itself...
"I will particularly note that the work by our aviation group helps unite the efforts of Syrian government forces and the Free Syrian Army [against the terrorists]. Currently, its [the FSA's] different units have over 5,000 people, and just like the regular [Syrian] forces, they are conducting offensive operations against terrorists in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Aleppo and Raqqa. In addition, we support them [the Free Syrian Army] from the air, same as we do with the Syrian army, assisting them with weapons, ammunition and materials."
Putin said further: "I want to warn those who will try to organize any sort of provocations against our service members in the future. We have already taken additional measures to provide security to Russian service members and air bases [in Syria]. They are reinforced through new air units and means of air defense. All actions by strike aircraft are conducted under fighter [jet] cover. My order is to act harshly. Any targets threatening the Russian group or our infrastructure on the ground should be destroyed immediately...
Speaking of the general state and objectives of the Russian Armed Forces, Putin said: "We must increase the intensity of operational and combat training for troops... I will particularly note the Centre-2015 large-scale strategic drills. It stood out for the participation of a powerful strike aviation group and operative paratroopers landing... Particular attention should be given to transporting troops over long distances, creating groups in threatened areas, developing strategic nuclear containment objectives and air defense through a practical rise in aviation, with maneuvers using anti-aircraft missile and radio engineering components... Main emphasis should be on preparing personnel to operate in challenging conditions, including in mountainous areas."
Statements By Defense Minister Shoygu
Defense Minister Shoygu said at the meeting: "We are observing a consistent expansion of NATO. In a relatively short time, it has almost doubled, with 12 new members. This year alone NATO has increased its contingent in Baltic states, Poland and Romania eight times over in terms of aircraft and 13 times in the number of troops... Some 200 American nuclear air bombs are concentrated on the territories of Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey, with plans for their upgrade, and 310 carrier planes are maintained in various degrees of readiness. To achieve informational supremacy of the NATO countries over Russia a cybersecurity center has been deployed in [Estonia's capital] Tallinn, and a center for advanced strategic propaganda experience in [the Latvian capital] Riga...
"Our strategic nuclear forces have been maintained at a level that makes it possible to guarantee nuclear deterrence. More than 95 percent of the launch units within the Strategic Missile Forces are in constant combat readiness." 
Earlier Statement By Putin Regarding Use Of Nuclear Weapons Against Terrorists
At a December 8, 2015 meeting with Shoygu, Putin said: "With regard to [missile] strikes from a submarine. We certainly need to analyze everything that is happening on the battlefield, how the weapons work. Both the Calibre missiles and the Kh-101 rockets are generally showing very good results. We now see that these are new, modern and highly effective high-precision weapons that can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads. Naturally, we do not need that in fighting terrorists, and I hope we will never need it. But overall, this speaks to our significant progress in terms of improving weaponry and equipment being supplied to the Russian army and navy."
 It should be mentioned that, on the same day, president Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that Russia is not supporting the Free Syrian Army, saying: "No, Russia is supplying weapons to the Syrian Arab Republic and to Syria's legitimate authorities." (Tass.ru/en, December 11, 2015). However, on December 15, Russian top military official Lieutenant-General Sergey Rudskoy confirmed that cooperation is taking place between Russia and opposition elements in Syria, saying: "Contact has been established and is constantly maintained. Opposition groups are providing the command of the Russian Air Force [with] coordinates to strike terrorist targets" (Rt.com, December 15, 2015).
 Kremlin.ru, December 11, 2015
 Kremlin.ru, December 8, 2015.