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MOSCOW – With Russia's air campaign in Syria now in its third week, Vladimir Putin has raised his nation's global profile and proven its capability to project military power far from its borders. Now the Russian president could already be on the lookout for an exit strategy to prevent his gains from turning into a liability.
Putin certainly realizes that some 30 Russian combat jets won't be able to change the course of the war, and allow Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces to win. His apparent goals are more modest: to show all players that they will not be able to unseat Assad by force; to help cement the Syrian government's grip on the territory it controls; and to foster political talks that could allow Moscow to protect its interests in the region.
Another key task for Putin is bring Moscow and Washington together in a security dialogue, which he hopes would make Russia appear as an equal and eventually lead to improved ties with the West that were wrecked by the Ukraine crisis.
Even though the air campaign in Syria, the first Russian military operation outside the former Soviet Union since the Cold War, hasn't yet put any significant additional burden on Russia's crisis-stricken economy, there are strong reasons for the Kremlin to avoid long-term involvement in the conflict.
Putin has said that Russia's military action, which began on Sept. 30, will last as long as it's necessary to support the Syrian army's operations. While Assad's troops have launched a new offensive in central and northwestern Syria under Russian air cover, their effort is unlikely to significantly change the situation on the ground.
Protracted Russian military action without any visible gains by the Syrian army would quickly erode the propaganda effect Putin has achieved with his bombing blitz. On the other hand, broader military involvement — let alone ground action — would strain Russia's financial and logistical resources to the limit and could quickly sap domestic support for the Syrian campaign.
And while the air raids have shown Russia's military muscle, they also have stirred up a hornet's nest of powerful interests, angering key regional players. The Kremlin may feel strong pressure to map an exit strategy to avoid further straining ties with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others who have made unseating Assad their top priority.
The main challenge for Moscow is a peg to claim victory and get out. A notable Syrian army battle victory or at least a modest sign of progress in negotiations on settling the conflict could provide a good excuse.
Since June, Russia has played with the idea of a political transition that would envisage setting up some sort of interim government, talking to the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the Syrian opposition and others. Moscow's diplomatic efforts have brought no visible results so far, but Putin has insisted that a political solution for Syria remains his top goal despite the military action.
On Sunday, Putin discussed the situation in Syria with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammad bin Salman. The unexpected encounter was their second meeting since June, signaling shared interest in a compromise.
Putin used the talks to assuage Saudi fears about Moscow teaming up with Tehran. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir said after the meeting that Russia assured Saudi Arabia that its action in Syria doesn't mean an alliance with Iran, the Saudis' arch-enemy in the region.
If the Kremlin can reach agreement with Saudi Arabia, which has pushed strongly for Assad's ouster since the start of the Syrian conflict in March 2011 — and has been the principal supporter of various opposition groups — it could help jumpstart the stalled peace talks.
Parallel to that, Moscow also has sought to alleviate the concerns of Turkey, a major economic partner and the second-biggest importer of Russian natural gas after Germany. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sharply criticized Russia for targeting moderate rebels and warned Moscow that Ankara could turn to other gas suppliers if it doesn't revise its policy in Syria.
On a conciliatory note, Putin said this week that the Kremlin understands Turkish concerns about the Kurds and vowed to take them into account. Syrian Kurdish forces are fighting the Islamic State group, while Turkey's Kurdish rebels have battled the nation's security forces.
Russia also responded quickly to Turkish protests against violation of its airspace by Syria-based Russian jets, setting up a military coordination panel to avoid such incidents in the future.
Prior to launching his air campaign, Putin agreed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to establish a similar coordination mechanism between the nations' militaries.
While working to soothe the worries of regional powers, Moscow has energetically pursued its efforts to engage the U.S. in a dialogue on Syria.
By launching air strikes, Putin effectively forced the U.S. to start military-to-military talks on avoiding clashes between the two nations' combat planes over Syria. The Pentagon and the Russian military have had several rounds of discussions on a set of rules to prevent any such incidents.
But Putin also kept pushing for broader political and military talks. At last month's meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, he proposed sending a delegation led by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the U.S. for broader discussions on Syria.
When the U.S. refused, Russia quickly made it public and Putin slammed the U.S. for lacking an agenda in Syria.
The Russian president also sought to fend off U.S. criticism of Russia for targeting moderate opposition groups instead of IS — its declared primary target — saying that Washington has refused to share information on IS targets in Syria.
Putin said the U.S. refused a Russian request to name targets it considers legitimate, and when Moscow asked what targets it shouldn't strike, Washington also refused.
That prompted a mocking response from Putin: "It seems to me that some of our partners have mush for brains and lack a clear understanding of what's really going on there, and what goals they want to achieve."