In 2014, with Russia's shipyard lease in Crimea to expire in 2017 and the deal to extend it another 30 years on the rocks with Yanukovich's ouster, Putin brazenly occupied the peninsula militarily, invoking historical precedents and the image of "Greater Russia". But despite Donbas Ukrainians dreams of uniting with Russia, Putin's heart didn't seem to be into the conflict so much as reinvigorating Crimea, and the only significant action since was a brief push towards Mariupol in the presumed attempt to give Russia an easy land route to Crimea. But aside from laughable attempts to get Russian tourists to keep Crimea afloat economically with horrendous lines at the ferry, the Russians started rebuilding their Sevastopol fleet, where most of their global naval power is housed, within weeks of occupation (scroll down for better pics of the whole fleet).
But perhaps Putin had a change of heart or wisdom about maintaining the bridge or land route to Crimea, as Russia's new $1.4 billion base is meant to open in 2020, not in Sevastopol, but in Novorossiysk heading down the Black Sea's east coast towards Sochi - firmly in undisputed Russia.
This Black Sea investment might not have seemed the greatest idea what with Russia's relationship with Turkey on the rocks, but suddenly amidst significant surprise, Russia's Turkish relations vastly improved (with Turkey & Russia now arrying out naval maneuvers together in lieu of the short-term gas embargo). Erdogan also took advantage of the "beginning of a beautiful relationship" to crack down on Islamic dissenters at home and take off the gloves as to Kurdish rebels in Syria. [Some think Erdogan is just playing East off West, but it's hard to see what he wants from the West at this point, aside from a foil and scapegoat]. Putin's obvious benefit? Anything in the Black Sea comes out the Bhosporus Straits, i.e. through good ol' ancient Byzantium, aka Istanbul.
But for an anti-Islamist such as Putin, the Syrian participation didn't make that much sense. While he would naturally oppose ISIS and prefer a more secular, old-style tyrant, he didn't seem to have much of a dog in that hunt. Except for that nice Russian naval base on the Mediterranean in Tartus [Foreign Affairs] and nearby troops housed in Latakia. And so his announcement last year that their mission was largely done made sense - as long as he retained docking & shipping rights. And indeed, Assad's fate rests firmly in Putin's hands and 1 Security Council vote away from regime change.
This wasn't a recent decision, as this Jan 2013 foray indicated: With a buildup of 16 Russian warships carrying thousands of marines on the Syrian coast “to deter the West from deploying ground forces in Syria” "... Assad nixes dialogue with "Western puppets".
Did the chemical attacks signify a serious shift in Assad's approach to the rebels - already on their heels since Aleppo - or was it an easy way for Putin to let Trump distance himself and take the heat off our domestic situation and the Russian-collusion feeding frenzy? All it took was a few Tomahawk missiles to destroy a largely abandoned airfield at 3am, and Trump's suddenly a war hero, a "statesman" and an anti-Russian security hawk.
But Putin's ambitions to master the sea lanes don't end there. More and more he's been sending boats as messengers - including nuclear subs - to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, into Norwegian waters, a flotilla through the English Channel, an encounter in Australia, another off a naval base in Connecticut, et al. Putin's no Peter the Great - he's too smart for another huge push for territory or more failed land wars in Asia. But boats and subs just cost a bit of oil or uranium, both in high Russian supply.
The Libyan deal is peculiar, as Putin's set up troops in western Egypt, near the Libyan border, to ally himself with the breakaway Libyan general Haftar controlling much of East Libya (the largely independent Cyrenaica of old) signing an oil deal with the eastern region just briefly before Haftar retook oil port facilities from the UN - suggesting more intrigues to come in Benghazi. Curiously enough, this Financial Times article seems to have undercurrents that Putin could also be presenting himself to the EU as the reasonable, practical man to deal with ISIS spinoffs in places like LIbya.
That would be an incredible PR success, considering acts like Russia's purported involvement in trying to assassinate Montenegro's PM might have been a twofer - halt Montenegro's membership in NATO and give Russia's fleet access to the Adriatic. That chapter's been closed, but certainly more to come.
Putin's intent on playing an actor on a bigger stage, and has been for some time. In some ways it's admirable - with Russia's waning energy fortunes showing a darkened future, he's augmented shrunken fortunes at home by projecting greater strength abroad. Too bad that this is largely of a Potemkin variety - it's hard to monetize intrigue in quite the same way as real natural resources and products of old. When your main business becomes a protection, laundering & extortion racket, how much future is there to that, however extensive the network?