It’s true that, much as Russian officials claim they merely want to help the world fight ISIS, their main motive is to shore up the regime of their ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However, those two goals are not mutually exclusive: Moscow does have an interest in crushing radical Islamist groups that might spread to the heavily Muslim regions of southern Russia. Either way, the uptick in military supplies to Syria (on top of the billions of dollars in arms sales and aid over many years) marks not an expansion of Russia’s influence in the Middle East but rather a last-ditch effort to preserve its one last bastion—an extremely shaky bastion, at that.
In the past decade, Russia has lost erstwhile footholds in Libya and Iraq, failed in its attempt to regain Egypt as an ally after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and would have lost Syria as well except for its supply of arms and advisers to Assad—whom it still may lose, despite its desperate measures.
The portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable. Syria is just one of two countries outside the former Soviet Union where Russia has a military base (the other being Vietnam, and its naval facility there, at Cam Ranh Bay, has shrunk considerably). His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain.