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Story highlights

Vladimir Putin's Syria operation is about more than keeping Bashar al-Assad in power

He is leveraging the crisis in Syria to make a point that Obama has failed where he can succeed

Putin also wants to "change the conversation" about Ukraine, frustrate the U.S. abroad, burnish his image at home

(CNN) —  

On Russian TV – breathtaking video of missiles launched from Russian ships in the Caspian Sea, streaking into the night sky, racing almost a thousand miles to their targets in Syria, exploding, the reporter boasts, no more than nine feet from their targets.

Russia’s surprise strategy in Syria, a ruthless triad of military attack, diplomatic maneuvering and verbal broadsides against the West, has shocked the United States and its allies.

President Vladimir Putin is making one thing crystal clear: He will go to the mat to keep the Syrian President in power, at least for now.

But this is not just about Bashar al-Assad. In an aggressive challenge to the West, Putin is demanding to be taken seriously as a major player, not only in Syria or the Middle East, but in the world.

Just yesterday, it seemed, Putin was a pariah, kicked out of the G-8 for annexing Crimea, his economy reeling from economic sanctions.

Now, he has launched Russia’s biggest and most assertive military operation since the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The speed of the deployment has NATO worried.

In a speech at the United Nations, Putin blamed the West itself for creating the terrorist organization ISIS: “Do you realize what you have done?”

Why are Russian airstrikes in Syria a big deal?

Why now?

Syria has been Russia’s ally since the 1970s and Moscow has supplied all the country’s weapons. But al-Assad’s forces have been steadily losing the battle against opposition forces, as well as terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra. With the prospect of al-Assad going down, Putin made his move.

By deploying his military to reinforce Syrian troops, Putin hopes to keep al-Assad in power, or at least until there’s a plan to replace him. In any case, the Russian President wants to be at the table, a voice to be reckoned with.

Putin, with a black belt in judo, is deftly leveraging the difficult position President Barack Obama was in: A year of U.S. bombings against ISIS seemed to be going nowhere, and U.S. attempts to train opposition fighters were fizzling. In effect, Putin called out Obama, taunting him with a not-so-diplomatic version of “you failed; now, let a man do it.” Russian bloggers started tweeting Putin “leaderoftheworld.”

Putin also wants to “change the conversation” about the conflict in Ukraine, and avoid being hit again in December with reauthorized economic sanctions.

Vladimir Putin longs to score one for his vision of the world as a place where governments – even those with repressive leaders – should not be overthrown by a United States cynically justifying its actions by claiming to protect “human rights.”

Finally, with an all-out domestic propaganda campaign, Putin is using Syria to rally his own people to support him as the savior of Russia, the man who rebuilt the country’s military from its weak and impoverished state, instilling a sense of pride and patriotism, and restoring Russia to its rightful place as the moral beacon of the world.

Breathtaking? Yes. Can he do it? Maybe. But, Vladimir Putin seems ready to make that bet. As he said more than a decade ago: “We … displayed weakness…and the weak are always beaten.”

Opinion: Will Russian airstrikes in Syria derail Turkey relationship?

Jill Dougherty is a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent and Moscow bureau chief with expertise in Russia and the former Soviet Union. She is currently at the International Centre for Defence and Security, researching the influence of Russian media.