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Vladimir Putin celebrates his birthday by scoring goals, firing missiles

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Russian President Vladimir Putin turned 63 on Wednesday, and he celebrated the occasion with his customary swagger. Putin participated alongside former and current professional hockey stars in a game broadcast live on Russian television. True to form, he scored seven goals in his team's 15-10 victory.

To be sure, Putin's glut of goals on his birthday is still a decline from his performance in May, when the famously athletic Russian leader tallied eight goals in a similar match played in the Black Sea town of Sochi.

But he was hitting targets elsewhere.

This video released by Russia's defense ministry shows Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launching cruise missiles on targets in Syria. (Video: Russian Defense Ministry/YouTube)

The Russian military on Wednesday signaled a new phase in its operations in Syria, firing at least 26 missiles from four warships in the Caspian Sea. The missiles flew about 900 miles over Iraq and Iran to targets in Syria — supposedly "infrastructural facilities" belonging to the Islamic State militant group. Putin declared that the strikes "destroyed all the planned targets."

But American observers and officials in some countries that neighbor Syria say the Russian offensive has far less to do with combating the militant group than preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a staunch Moscow ally. In conjunction with the Russian naval salvo, Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive against rebel factions, including some backed by the CIA and excluding the Islamic State.

Putin appears unmoved by the complaints and hand-wringing of the West, least of all on his birthday. To underscore the event, an exhibition of flattering Putin-related artwork went on display in Moscow, hailing the Russian president as an Olympian deity, a Scandinavian god and a comic book superhero. One wonders whether it's all gone a bit to his head.

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