So let me ponder a scenario of war if Russian rhetoric is telegraphing intentions.
Mind you, this is mostly my wargaming mind let loose, contemplating opportunities on a map with cardboard counters.
Let me start with assumptions:
--Rather than being a reason to avoid war, Russia's financial and economic problems from sanctions, corruption, and low oil prices could be viewed by certain paranoid people as an act of war against Russia, that justifies war in more kinetic terms.
--Russia is far weaker than America in conventional military power.
--Russia matches us in nuclear weapons.
--Russia has a military advantage close to their western borders in the short run.
--Russia's allies in this will be Iran, Syria, plus a flipped Turkey and a secretly cooperative Pakistan.
--China is a wild card, that may or may not want to be involved.
Russia's goals are to weaken NATO as a barrier to Russian westward expansion, to claw back some ground, and to portray America as powerless to resist Russia, thus setting the conditions for reconstruction of the Russian empire in Europe at a future date when Russian conventional power is greater, rather than going for broke right now to win it all.
So let's go from north to south, and then head east.
Russian forces pretending to be Estonian rebels occupy Narva, on the border with Russia. They dig in with Russian forces providing air defenses, artillery, logistics, and replacements from across the border in Russia. Everyone will know that this is all a lie but it won't matter because Russia will deny everything.
Russia announces a quarantine of Estonia, arguing that this is an internal Estonian matter. Russian ships and planes patrol the Baltic Sea. Russia seizes Sweden's Gotland Island "for the duration of the crisis" and Russia announces that it has planted mines in the Baltic Sea to prevent outside interference.
Russian forces--of low quality but overwhelmingly large, move up to the border of Latvia.
In Kaliningrad, Russia announces that their Iskander missiles are equipped with nuclear warheads. Russian air defense forces in the exclave light up everything flying over Poland, and Latvia (with fire control radars as a warning--not shooting planes down, to be clear).
Russia reinforces their air force in Belarus and flies in paratroopers to prevent NATO aggression against their fraternal friend Belarus. Belarus is helpless to object.
Hungary's Putin-friendly ruler announces that he considers the crisis in Estonia an internal matted that NATO should stay out of.
Russian separatist sock puppets in the Donbas supported by Russian forces begin operations to secure the Ukrainian region from Kharkov to the sea of Azov.
Russia reinforces Crimea with air, naval, and paratrooper units to threaten the Black Sea coast of Ukraine.
Turkey announces that the Estonian crisis is an internal matter and closes the Dardanelles and Bosporus to NATO sea traffic for the duration to prevent unwanted incidents in the Black Sea. Turkey also shuts down the NATO base at Incirlik for the duration of the crisis. American and NATO personnel in Turkey are confined to their bases, essentially becoming hostages.
Russian air and naval forces--reinforced from the Black Sea because Russian traffic is not blocked in the Turkish Straits.
Moqtada al Sadr--Iran's hand puppet Shia warlord in Iraq, stages an uprising in Iraq supported by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. If the Iraqi army units we trained are leaning forward in the offensive on Mosul, with Sadrist militias in their rear, the Iraqi army might again collapse between ISIL and the pro-Iran elements.
Many American advisors--lacking American combat units to protect them--are captured, although the bulk of them manage to seek shelter in the Kurdish north and the American embassy in Baghdad. But the American remain cut off and unable to quickly evacuate. Sadr raises the issue of whether Kuwait is the 19th province of Iraq.
Turkey moves troops into Syrian and Iraqi territory, beginning the rebuilding of the Ottoman Empire, gaining their part of the bargain with Russia. Turkey also overruns the ethnic Greek portion of Cyprus, completing the invasion begun by Turkey 40 years ago.
Russia closes the Suez Canal, blocking American routes to the Central Command region in the Persian Gulf. This might be with a block ship sunk in the canal, with paratroopers occupying a segment while on training missions in Egypt, or with missile strikes from Russia's Mediterranean naval forces. This also blocks any oil traffic from Saudi Red Sea facilities going north.
Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz with minefields and covered by naval forces and shore-based anti-ship artillery and missiles, blocking Gulf oil exports.
Iran fires several ballistic missiles with the range to reach Saudi oil fields into the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea to warn Saudi Arabia.
A pro-Shia uprising initiated by Iran takes place in Bahrain, supported by Iran. Saudi Shia riot in eastern Saudi Arabia.
Iranian and pro-Iranian Yemen forces block the southern entry to the Red Sea with mines and anti-ship missiles to further block Saudi oil exports going south.
Heading east, Russia convinces Pakistan to quietly flip--perhaps with a Chinese assist behind the scenes to offer to make up for lost American support. Already worried about American pressure to behave, Pakistan closes--or allows to be closed by bandits--all supply routes to Afghanistan. Combined with Russian efforts to close off American lines of supply through the "Stans" and an Iranian closure of routes through their country, thousands of American and NATO personnel are isolated in Afghanistan for the duration--and effectively hostages. And Pakistan opens the spigot to the Taliban who put American bases under siege in Afghanistan.
Faced with multiple threats from the Baltic to the mountains of Afghanistan, what does America do?
With so many American military personnel plus civilian personnel at risk in hostage situations, do we take military actions against any of the threats and risk losing them to prison or massacre?
Or do we sit back an let Narva and the Donbas be annexed to Russia at the price of freeing our trapped military personnel?
Do we abandon Iraq, and by caving in notify Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and everyone else in the region that Russia and Iran are the strong horse and they'd best make their deals with Moscow and Tehran--which will include ending all support to Sunni resistance to Assad in Syria--because they can't count on American support?
Do Hungary and Turkey then pull out of NATO, beginning the "Nexit" (NATO Exit) stampade out of NATO by countries too close to Russia to risk their ire?
Does Greece follow quickly, making a financial deal with Russia in exchange for hosting Russian forces on their soil, to contain Turkish ambitions at their expense and to avoid being the last to leave NATO, so reducing the price Greece might get for flipping to Russia?
Do Sweden and Finland make their peace with Russia by ending NATO ties? Does Sweden even get Gotland back?
Or does America declare war and mobilize to keep our allies on the line with us? Setting the stage for a major war against Russian and Iranian aligned forces, risking nuclear war if the Russians sense they are losing as we mobilize forces for a long war to repel the Russian and Iranian advances?
We would win such a war, I have no doubt, if it remains conventional. And Russia could very well remain rational on the nuclear escalation issue as they lose ground despite their rhetoric. But it will suck to count on Russian rationality, no?
And keep in mind that this does not require a lot of decent quality Russian ground forces at the pointy end of the stick. Relatively small capable ground forces plus larger numbers of bluffing troops that just have to look scary will suffice to win if we back down or fight on a narrow front at one point of the offensive. Mind you, if we don't back down and significant pieces of the scenario don't play out, we have the option of mobilizing resources to win the war.
With the threat of nuclear escalation looming over the war, of course.
I don't mention China. My guess is that rather than making a play for Taiwan or the South China Sea or East China Sea islands that they claim during the chaos, China would rather see if a crisis in which China is strictly neutral escalates to the point of taking out or reduces their two biggest military threats--America and Russia. Why risk getting involved and really rattling America to the point of triggering irrational (nuclear) actions as we see threats coming at us from everywhere?
China might well think they can play the long game and take advantage of the loss of America's reputation as an ally if we back down across Europe and the Middle East; or benefit from the end of the pivot to the Pacific as American military power is sent to the European and Middle East fronts.
Or they might jump in thinking they can get a short and glorious war to bolster the authority and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party as the economic basis of that authority erodes dangerously.
Perhaps that is how a regional war against a couple of regional powers becomes a global war.
And maybe North Korea announces they've sold Iran nuclear warheads for their new missile force.
Like I say, this is just a wargaming scenario that could make for an interesting game. What are the odds of all or even significant portions taking place in the real world?
For want of a resolute president the last 8 years, the kingdom might fall and burn.
UPDATE: Strategypage looks at Russia's military problems. Remember, Russian aggression so far depends on Russia choosing weak targets that don't get American support to clearly defeat the Russians. If Russia is able to rebuild their conventional military forces, their target list will expand. Note too that Russians are worried about China even though Russia loudly complains about a NATO threat that is only prompting NATO to prepare to fight Russia again.