Russia's ramping up of hostile actions
reflects not so much a disregard for its international reputation, as some commentators have suggested, as an urgent concern in Moscow at the prospect of impending conflict with the West.
Each week brings startling new evidence of Russia's lack of restraint in pursuing its own security agenda. Opinions differ on the underlying objectives, but it is almost always a mistake to look for a single reason for Russian actions.
Russia does care what the world thinks of it, but not in the same way as Western nations. Instead, it wants the world to be alarmed at the consequences of antagonizing Russia.
The increase in tempo and urgency of Russian preparations for conflict has meant leaving caution behind. The move to overt, even blatant, intelligence gathering and probing for vulnerabilities has led to the activities of Russian hackers, spies, submarines and satellites that previously were conducted in deep secrecy now being commonly reported in open media.
Targeting and intimidation of individual servicemen from NATO
nations that come within Russia's reach can be expected to increase with the stationing of NATO's new multinational battalions
in the Baltic states and Poland.
In fact, Russia sees that it is already in conflict with the West in every domain except direct and deliberate military clashes. With sanctions and "information war," meddling in elections and referendums in the West, and disregarding or walking away from treaties and agreements,economic, intelligence, propaganda and cyber confrontation by Russian definitions are already well established.
According to the general in charge of Russia's NATO-facing Western Military District, Russia's new definition of war "is never declared, and never ends". What is more, it can achieve its aims without using armed force at all.
But Russia is preparing for the worst. The ongoing process of rearming and transforming the military, and mobilizing government and society, reached a new peak this week with the announcement of a massive civil defense exercise accompanied by rhetoric on surviving nuclear attack.
Meanwhile, Russia's actions in Syria
have provided an unwelcome reminder of the Russian way of war. For the West, the notions of disregard for collateral damage, of terrorizing an opponent into submission by targeting the civilian population and soft targets like hospitals, of bomb and missile strikes intended to cause mass casualties in reprisal for the deaths of Russian servicemen, all belong in previous centuries. For Russia, once open conflict begins, they remain the most effective means to an end.
And despite Russian military brinksmanship displayed in the air and at sea along its Western periphery, Syria risks being the trigger for an even more dangerous confrontation. Lack of cooperation due to incompatible priorities and a failure to agree on the enemy increases the risk of Russia directly causing greater U.S. casualties in airstrikes - or vice versa.
In both Ukraine and Syria, Russia's active intervention successfully averted a situation that, viewed from Moscow, appeared potentially disastrous. But whether Russia sees its actions as self-defense is unfortunately irrelevant to those suffering the consequences in both conflicts.
Russia will push as far as it can to achieve its objectives -- without risking damaging counterattack. At present, Russia can set both the tempo of the confrontation and its limits. Moscow knows it will lose this control if it pushes the United States too far, in Syria or elsewhere. But as yet, Russia has not found the limits of what it can get away with.
Several years of testing boundaries -- and pushing further when meeting no resistance other than words -- have taught Russia that it can be confident of little meaningful response from the current U.S. administration; and so, Russian behavior becomes more and more outrageous. A continuing lack of challenge can only mean that this process will continue, and Russia will become ever bolder and more ambitious in what it seeks to achieve.
Russia's latest demands for rolling back U.S. and NATO
defensive preparations to how they were in 2010 would seem laughable, if it were not for Moscow's recent solid track record in manipulating the West to its advantage.
The refusal of the current U.S. administration to recognize the problem, extending to attempts to suppress congressional reporting on Russian hostile actions, is an abdication of responsibility for mitigating the long-term consequences of failing to deal with Russia.
The next administration will be left to pick up the pieces and do whatever possible to bring the Russia relationship back under control. If it fails to do so swiftly, the consequences are likely to be severe.