This is not good:
Russia’s assertive foreign policy is increasingly being driven by a need to re-legitimise Putin’s regime at home. In his first two terms as president, Putin’s legitimacy derived largely from unprecedented economic growth. The drop in the oil price means this is no longer sustainable. Instead, Putin is seeking to divert attention from these economic woes and gain legitimacy by reasserting Russian militarism. The Kremlin sees an adversarial relationship with the West as serving its interests to some extent; a hostile world full of enemies provides a further pretext for its assertive foreign policy and tightening of domestic control.
The good news is that Russia is not seeking a full military confrontation with the West. Russia needs mid-level conflicts or crises, enough to build up a siege mentality and galvanise public support, but not enough to risk serious confrontation. The bad news is that mistakes and miscalculations happen, and the tension is unlikely to reduce unless the Kremlin finds an alternative model of legitimacy.
Russia wants to treat the West like an enemy without actually fighting us. Nice work if you can get it, eh? Portray the West as a threat in full confidence that the West isn't capable of being a threat.
What could go wrong?
Despite Russia's clear interest in portraying a NATO with little offensive military power as a threat, there's a lot of blaming the West for Russia's aggressiveness. Which is nonsense.
If people think Russia is aggressive because NATO was too harsh on Russia in a manner that the Treaty of Versailles was too hard on Germany, that assumption needs to be challenged.
The Treaty of Versailles was not too hard on Germany. It was not hard enough.
The post-World War II treatment of Germany was much harder. And that--combined with the outside common threat of the Soviet Union--worked to create a Germany democratic and allied worthy of being a member of the West.
We could not treat the defeated USSR that way in 1991, of course. Nukes, you know. Lots of them. So we didn't have the option of ripping out the Communist and KGB elements of Russia's elites as we did with the Nazis after 1945.
No, we have the post-World War I situation where the Russians went home, recovered, and nursed the grievance of being stabbed in the back by the West to explain their fall from global power and status.
Of course, if this era has an eerie inter-war feel about it, my real worry is that Putin isn't the new Hitler but the new Mussolini sidekick to the main revisionist power threat to peace.
Not that the sick angry man of Europe can't be a threat to peace within its capabilities--especially when the second banana with an outsized ego bridles at the notion of being the second banana.
Are we really to count on Russia knowing a war with NATO is a bad idea?
But we could face worse things than war with Russia.