Putin will never accept a democratic, truly independent, thriving and Europe-oriented Ukraine next door. His plan for Ukraine is simple: a Russia-controlled state – or a failed state. So why not kill two birds with one stone and attempt to bring about a collapse of the pro-Western government in Kiev to crown Putin's re-election, most likely by engineering Ukraine's battlefield defeat, which the monopolistic Russian state propaganda will dress up as protecting the motherland from yet another NATO attack? (Putin has called Ukraine "NATO's Foreign Legion.")
The overthrow of President Aleksandr Lukashenka's regime in Belarus, formerly the closest ally but of late dangerously flirting with the West, risking another so-called color revolution next door and refusing Russia's repeated requests for an airbase. The installation of a puppet pro-Russian regime in Minsk will also give Putin direct access to the entire length of the border of Poland, the key state on NATO's eastern flank, currently separated by Belarus, and will allow for the deployment of Russian troops over Ukraine's northern border and within a mere 100 kilometers (65 miles) over flat terrain from Kiev. So watch out in September for the "joint" Russian-Belorussian Zapad, or "West," military exercise in Belarus (likely the largest military drill in Russia's post-Soviet history). There is a chance that the Russian troops may decide to stay for a while.
Russia's exploiting potential instability in Kazakhstan, in case of the passing of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, to occupy and annex the country's northern regions, which historically are at least as "Russian," ethnically and historically, as was Crimea. (A colleague visiting Kazakhstan in spring 2014 reported Kazakh officials saying that "Crimea is our 9/11"— a deafening wake-up call to clear and present danger.)
But the key prize by far will be achieving something that even the Soviet Union could not pull off: exposing NATO as a paper tiger by destabilizing Estonia and Latvia, NATO members with very sizeable ethnic Russian minorities. The "tripwire" deployments of token U.S., British, Canadian and German troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland are not likely to deter Putin if he truly thirsts for a pre-election triumph. A tripwire works only to the extent of the tripper's perception of the ensuing explosion. Yes, there is Article 5, extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over our NATO allies. But a nuclear war with Russia over Latvia and Estonia? In the meantime, the grossly inadequate conventional defense of the NATO's eastern flank could be very tempting not for rolling tanks into Tallinn or Riga, but for executing the "Crimea scenario" by sending in "little green men," special operations troops without insignia, to seize Narva in Estonia or Daugavpils in Latvia, disclaim any responsibility for the intrusion and foment (or fake) a "pro-Russian" uprising in the areas.
Of course, these are worst-case scenarios, fraught with real risks for Putin. In Russian history, change of regimes or even revolutions have quite often begun with a military defeat or frustrated foreign policy: the Crimean War of 1853-1856, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cuba missile fiasco in 1962 and the dismissal of Nikita Khrushchev as premier two years later, the disastrous Afghan War of 1979-1988 and Gorbachev's perestroika. Still, Putin has shown the willingness to roll the dice. His domestic political imperatives are growing urgent — and he has been lucky so far.
This is a dangerously explosive combination. Let's hope the West is prepared to handle it.