Demonstrating his usual flair for risk-taking, Vladimir Putin has joined the Syrian civil war in spectacular style, employing a ruthless Cold War strategy, with all the benefits of 21st-century dexterity.
This week, the Russian Defence Ministry released a video (below) of what it claims is a sea-based missile attack into Syria from 1500km away in the Caspian Sea.
The target, according to the Russians, is Islamic State – but the Americans strongly disagree.
The West claims Russia is targeting moderate US-backed rebels in Syria to support his ally, president Bashar al-Assad, who is battling to maintain his grip on power. The US wants Assad removed.
Russia has long supported the Assad regime, but this was an escalation reportedly undertaken as signs of decay became evident in the Assad regime.
The aim is to deprive the CIA of those few Syrian partners it has managed to cultivate – many of whom are associated with extremism – and which Putin fears may one day turn their attention to Russia’s Muslim population.
Indeed, a close reading of Russia’s military deployment suggests Putin is trying to wedge the US into a corner, even as he comes to the rescue of Assad.
And in the face of Western criticism, Moscow’s regional friends, Iran and Egypt, have stepped in to offer diplomatic cover for the intervention.
In the best traditions of the Cold War, Russia’s president is taking a gamble on the destabilising politics of the Middle East.
Putin flexes his mighty muscle
Rumours are that Russian planes were first smuggled into the war-torn country by flying in close formation with civilian airliners.
Weapons transports have been disguised as humanitarian convoys, and so-called Russian “volunteers” may now appear in the fight, presumably to better co-ordinate airpower from the ground.
Russian warplanes are now permanently based near the Syrian coastline, flying bombing sorties against rebel opponents. Tanks have been sighted on the ground and sea-to-land attacks are being broadcast to the world.
But perhaps the Russian president’s most telling moment in the last few days was his criticism of news reports pointing out civilian casualties from Russia’s bombing campaign.
He described them as “information attacks”, akin to propaganda designed to sap domestic morale.
This is the world of subterfuge and misdirection which his KGB training has prepared him for.
Not the first time
Indeed, you need only to look at the crisis in Ukraine to see the logic of Russian diplomacy.
Last year, with weapons and special forces spilling across the border to aid Russia-backed separatists, international opinion turned against Putin’s feigned ignorance.
European leaders considered inviting Ukraine to join NATO and participated in US-led sanctions against Russia.
At present, the Ukraine conflict has largely frozen over, despite persistent violations of a temporary ceasefire.
Most importantly, many Western leaders now acknowledge that Russia’s voice must be included in the final settlement.
Putin appears to be gambling that he can bring the US to the negotiating table over Syria, too.
His intervention in the civil war won’t deliver victory, but it may just secure an influential position for any future round of diplomacy.
And if Russia’s military campaign destroys those few rebel groups dealing with the CIA, it could present a fait accompli that President Obama has tried desperately to avoid: Assad or IS.
* David Schaefer is a non-residential fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies. A graduate from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, he has worked for several think tanks and universities