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Putin's proxy war

President Putin turned 63 this week, but, as he savored his birthday cake, did the thought occur to him that he might have bitten off more than he could chew with his Syria strategy? Fiona Clark in Moscow investigates.

Shortly after Russian warships fired 26 cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea into Syria, some 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) away, Vladimir Putin went off to play ice hockey with a bunch of national hockey league stars. Not surprisingly the Russian leader managed to score seven goals - a perfect way to finish off your birthday celebrations.

But what else can you give the man who already has Crimea and possibly a swath of Ukraine still up his sleeve? Well, perhaps a tilt at redressing what Russia sees as the pro-US power imbalance by setting up his own Middle East alliance with Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and a host of others who aren't all that popular with the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

putin in ice hockey garb photo: Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Made of ice ...

Ironically, it's Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that are currently causing Russia an enormous amount of economic pain by pumping enough oil to drop the price per barrel to well below $50 (45 euros). Russia's budget was designed on an oil price of $100/barrel. Although it's now been revised downwards, the economy is now in recession and the value of the ruble has plummeted.

What better way then to get some attention than to throw your missiles into someone else's war - even if you claim you were invited. And there's no denying it: his airstrikes in Syria, delivered with a whisker of notice, have sent shockwaves through the US and NATO countries.

Though Russia claims that it is there to destroy the "Islamic State" (IS), the US has warned that its strategy of bombing anyone who "walks," "looks"' or "fights like a terrorist" is doomed to fail. Britain says it will deploy about 100 troops to the Baltic nations to help settle nerves against the possibility of more "Ukraine-style" Russian expansionism, while NATO has responded to the "accidental" incursions into Turkish airspace by Russian fighter jets by warning that it is willing to defend its member states. Turkey itself is saying Russia should fly carefully, because losing Turkey as a friend and ally would be a significant loss.

Show of might

Does Putin care? While analysts muse over Putin's tactics, he's got the hawks in the US in a flap, demanding that America stand up to this impudence immediately. The rhetoric is a familiar one: America's foreign policy is being 'internationally humiliated' and a failure to show strength will mean the land-grabbing Putin has won another victory over the 'weak' democrats with his brinkmanship tactics.

people protesting

Protests are well and good, but are unlikely to move Putin

Granted, that might give Putin reason to smile like the cat that swallowed the hawk, but has he bitten off more than he can chew this time? He maintains that he's merely ridding the world of a greater terror than Assad and Assad will step aside when the time is right. The West sees it quite differently, claiming Assad is worse than any terrorist group and has to go to be replaced by friendly rebels. Putin claims the almost five-year effort to get rid of Assad has caused the refugee crisis Europe is now experiencing and that the US' practice of aiding 'friendly rebels' has repeatedly failed across northern Africa and the Middle East. Not only that but those friendly rebels have been busy giving US arms to al Qaeda, so why not try something new?

But could it backfire? While he has said that his operation will only last a couple of months, the US and its allies have been waging airstrikes for a year already. Russia could be drawing itself into a long and protracted battle.

And while Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov might be champing at the bit to send his troops in to battle IS on the ground, the airstrikes may not go down that well with the 15-20 million Muslims living in Russia. (Kadyrov claims that the terrorists will run for their lives once they hear the Chechens are coming, but perhaps he's forgotten that quite a few of those fighting for IS are actually from Chechnya).

No matter how innocently Putin proclaims his best intentions, it seems very few are listening. But maybe that's not his problem. A prolonged conflict may well suit him - after all, there's nothing better for the price of oil than a good war.

Fiona Clark is an Australian journalist currently living in Russia. She started her career with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation as a TV reporter in the mid-1980s. She has spent the past 10 years working on publications such as The Lancet and Australian Doctor and consumer health websites. This is her second stint in Moscow. She also worked there from 1990 to 1992.

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