We've become surprisingly accustomed to Western powers, such as the United States, Britain and France, intervening militarily in the Middle East. The confirmation on Wednesday that Russian warplanes have begun carrying out airstrikes in Syria is something different. These strikes are an exceptionally rare example of Russia using its considerable military might outside its traditional sphere of influence.

In fact, to find a Russian military action that is as brazenly open and as far out of Moscow's back yard, you may well have to look deep into the Cold War period.

That is not to say that Russia hasn't used that might in recent years. Russian troops are currently accused of fighting alongside rebels in eastern Ukraine. In 2008, Moscow sent troops into Georgia and its air force bombed the capital, Tbilisi. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia fought in two bloody wars in Chechnya and carried out airstrikes during Tajikistan's civil war.

However, almost all of Russia's international military action in recent years has taken place in the "near abroad" — a term used in Russia and elsewhere to describe post-Soviet states that Moscow still considers strategically vital. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has only rarely and indirectly been involved in conflicts outside this sphere of influence — Russian soldiers were in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s but functioned as peacekeepers. (Russia continues to send a small number of military experts and troops to participate in the United Nations' peacekeeping missions).

Even when you delve further into the Soviet era, it is hard to find Russian military action comparable to the airstrikes in Syria. Soviet troops fought a brutal war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, but at the time the country was a direct neighbor of the Soviet Union. Soviet troops were involved in uprisings in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, but — again — all of these countries were clearly within Moscow's sphere of influence. Soviet troops were stationed in Vietnam during the war there and Soviet planes flew during the Korean War, but the Soviet Union did not play an official role in these and other proxy conflicts at the time (one of the more significant examples of Soviet military support in this period came during the Angolan civil war, though Soviet-backed Cuban troops formed the majority of this intervention).

Remarkably, for all of Moscow's interest in the Middle East, Soviet troops never openly fought in a conflict in the region during the Cold War. Moscow became a key ally of Egypt, Syria and Iraq during the Cold War, selling arms, providing diplomatic support and sending military advisers to the region. At a number of points, Russia threatened to directly intervene in conflicts in the region, and it did so covertly at least once (in 1970, when some Russian troops even donned Egyptian uniforms to fight Israel). However, Moscow usually distanced itself from direct involvement in conflicts in the Middle East and  on several occasions pressured states to avoid fighting.

The Kremlin has repeatedly emphasized that, unlike recent interventions by Western powers, Russian airstrikes in Syria are taking place at the request of President Bashar al-Assad and that they are targeting the Islamic State militant group. “Russia will factually be the only country to carry out this operation on the legitimate basis of the request of the legitimate government of Syria,” Dmitri Peskov, a Putin spokesman, told journalists in Moscow on Wednesday. Assad's office has said that it requested the strikes.

However, Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, emphasizes that while Russia had shied away from openly engaging in overseas military operations for years, it is thought to have repeatedly struck outside its traditional sphere in targeted assassinations in the Middle East and Europe. Hills points to the 2004 car bomb that killed Chechen rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha, Qatar. "Russia is now engaged in a more elaborate set of strikes against another crop of terrorists in Syria/Middle East who could target Russian interests," Hill writes in an e-mail.

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