Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad (L) during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 21, 2015. Assad, on his first foreign visit since Syria
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Story highlights

Putin polls higher than ever following Syria intervention

Dougherty: Russian leader may prove unlikely peacemaker

Seeks greater global role for Russia and himself

Editor’s Note: 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. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN) —  

If you believe the latest polls, Vladimir Putin’s ratings just hit the stratosphere, almost 90% approval. His image, driven home by non-stop video of Russian fighter bombers streaking through Syrian skies and hourly counts of how many “terrorist” nests have been blown to smithereens, is unabashedly macho. Finally, a Russian Rambo who will take the fight to the enemy!

But President Putin seems to be auditioning for another role: peacemaker. Even as Russian bombs are falling on Syria, Putin is switching from warrior to diplomat, insisting “the only aim (of Russia’s military operation in Syria) is to aid in establishing peace.”

He’s launched a barrage of telephone calls to the leaders of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and is urging the United States and Europe to join him in a grand alliance against terrorism.

His Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, is conferring with Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan.

Putin flew Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Moscow for a surprise visit, hinting at a possible political solution.

“The Syrian leadership must establish working contact with the opposition who are ready for dialogue,” he said, “and, as much as I understood from our conversation the day before yesterday with President Assad, he is prepared for such a dialogue.”

Limited Syria operation

So, why launch a bombing campaign if your objective is peace? By betting, rightly, that the United States and its allies would not stop him, Putin can prove he’s a global player, projecting force well beyond his borders while, at the same time, scorings points against what he calls a weak and indecisive America. Then, he can switch roles to peacemaker, showing he can end the military action that he began.

After all, in spite of the shock and awe of his air campaign, Putin’s Syrian military operation, for now, is limited, and so are his goals: avert the defeat of Assad’s army, preserving – for now, at least – its government, and guaranteeing that Russia’s interests must be protected in any future political settlement. Defeating ISIS would require a much larger military force, including Russian boots on the ground, something Putin vows he will not do.

Putin has rescued the Syrian army from almost certain defeat and President Assad’s government from possible collapse. Assad owes him and if Russia has any influence with the Syrian leader, it has never been greater than right now.

President Putin has some practice in peacemaker pivots. In Ukraine, after inflaming the conflict by supporting separatists in the Donbass region, he doused the flames by supporting the Minsk accords that have frozen the conflict. But Ukraine, for now, is forgotten in the fervor here in Russia over Syria.

Bigger global role for Putin

Carrying a Kalashnikov in one hand, and an olive branch in the other, Vladimir Putin seems to be setting his sights on playing an even bigger role as leader of the world.

Syria, the Russian president said this week, “can become a model for partnership in the name of common interests, resolving problems that affect everyone.”

The world had a chance at partnership at the end of the Cold War, he said, but “unfortunately, we did not take advantage of it.” There was another opportunity at the beginning of this century, he said, when Russia, the U.S. and other countries were faced with terrorism.

In his view, the U.S. botched it by trying to dictate to the world.

“Now,” he says, “what’s important is to draw the right lessons from what happened in the past and to move forward.”

This time, he says, the world can make the right choice, “the choice in favor of peace.”

And, in Putin’s eyes, they will have him to thank.