For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the arrival of fugitive American whistle-blower Edward Snowden in Moscow is an added ingredient in his long-term strategy of rebuilding Russian power and prestige.
For a few days at least he can lecture the United States about human rights, pointing out that Snowden has broken no Russian laws; mouthing legalisms about extradition treaties while staying at the centre of one of the most newsworthy stories of the year.
It’s a great opportunity and the former KGB strongman will take full advantage of it, but in the end it will be a minor and probably soon-forgotten step along the road he has been treading since succeeding the clownish Boris Yeltsin in 2000.
He inherited a country in crisis. The once proud Soviet Union was long gone; the world now familiar with the names of new countries which had once been Soviet republics. The possibility of further splintering was real with a virulent insurgency in the North Caucasus. The economy was in ruins and instead of being able to rely on the vast distances that had defeated Napoleon and Hitler, Moscow was now little more than 200 kilometres from the borders with potentially hostile Ukraine.
In the 13 years since Putin has masterminded a Russian resurgence based on the careful distribution of its abundant natural resources. Much of Europe now depends on Russia for its natural gas requirements and treats Moscow with deference because of it The North Caucasus crisis is contained if not quashed, the economy is growing steadily, poverty has been reduced and his popular support, if no longer overwhelming, is still solid enough. Returning to the presidency after the token term of his crony, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin was ready for the next stage of his Grand Plan.
The Syrian Civil War provided the ideal opportunity. Putin supports President Bashar al-Assad, not simply because he has been an ally in the past, but because the United States and much of the Western World backs the rebels. He gambles that the extensive weaponry and other technical assistance he is supplying to the beleaguered leader will be sufficient for Assad to crush the revolution while the US and other nations dither over what they should, or should not do to aid the insurgency.
For all his fine words about working with the West to end the bloodshed Putin will turn a blind eye to whatever reprisals a victorious Assad will make among the population who opposed him, while the Russian president will be quite happy to see a rampant and fully armed Hezbollah make mischief with Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Putin will have a firm and grateful ally to counter US influence and prestige in the Middle East which will take a great hit if Assad wins. He will feel free to meddle in the affairs of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbajan; Belarus will be pushed further into Russia’s orbit and even Ukraine may be prized away from its Western leanings.
At some point, of course, even a war-weary US will say enough and Putin cannot hope to do what the Soviet Union couldn’t and face down the might of the superpower. The trick will be in knowing when to stop - and that might be the greatest test yet for the man who has led his country back from the brink of chaos.