The Russian president could pursue 4 options in an attempt to preserve his power via foreign triumphs.
Whether Russia is the main threat to the U.S. is debatable: There are quite a number other very qualified candidates for this title, including North Korea and the Islamic State group. But, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney so presciently noted in 2012, President Vladimir Putin's Russia, at the moment, is almost certainly the main geopolitical foe. (Full disclosure: I was co-chair of the Russia Working Group in the Romney campaign.)
The reason is not in any inherent "evil" of Russia or Russians. Rather, it is a combination of factors that have propelled nations toward hostility with one another since at least the Peloponnesian War: pride, fear, revenge or glory.
Putin is an ardent Soviet patriot. Unlike former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he saw the end of the Soviet Union as a catastrophe which must be avenged. Similarly, Putin deeply resented the post-Cold War world order, which, in his view, the U.S. dominates and, as he put it, "rules by the gun." The answer to both developments is to avenge the humiliation by restoring Russia to the Soviet Union's glory.
Yet these sentiments, no matter how intensely and deeply held, remained largely dormant as policy guidelines in 2000-2008, when Putin's popularity (and his regime's legitimacy) rose steadily because of economic progress and rising incomes spurred by the skyrocketing oil prices, from under $20 when he was first elected in March 2000 to $145 when he left the presidency to Dmitry Medvedev's placeholding.
This was no longer the case when Putin came to his third presidential term in 2012. Although oil was still very expensive, the increasingly toxic domestic investment climate rife with bureaucratic racket and shakedowns of businesses slowed economic growth to a crawl. By the end of 2013, Putin's popularity was the lowest it had been since 2000.
He needed, quickly, to introduce institutional reforms to clean up the toxic domestic investment climate – or find another basis of popular support for his regime. He found one by reaching for the ideology of resentment and imperial restoration. It was the biggest gamble of his political life, and it worked. There followed the annexation of Crimea, the invasion and proxy war on Ukraine and the saving of Russia's oldest continuous Middle East client, President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria. Putin's popularity was back in the stratosphere.
Could he start looking inward again, as in 2000-2008, toward the economic progress rather than aggressive foreign policy? Sure. But reforms are always risky: Gorbachev's fate must be among Putin's most horrifying professional and perhaps personal nightmares. At the same time, the benefits of his foreign policy have so far dramatically outweighed the costs. So why mess with success?
In any case, don't look for any moderation between now and spring 2018, when Putin will assume his fourth presidential term. That he will "win" the election is a given: No real opposition candidate will be allowed to run, not to mention appear on national television. But how he wins matters a great deal to Putin personally and to his government, which otherwise, by opinion polls, is deeply unpopular. And who can blame the Russians, angry at the ubiquitous corruption, thievery and callousness of authorities at every level? By the latest count, 15 percent of the population is below the "living minimum," meaning 22 million people have not enough money even for food, and, after four years of recession, the projected growth of barely over 1 percent this year is not going to lift Russia's huge and heavy boat.
As a result, Putin does not want to resort to electoral fraud and thus risk protests all over Russia. No, he needs, and without doubt wants, fireworks, thrills, the outpouring of popular gratitude and adulation. He needs a national-patriotic military triumph, humiliating the enemy (NATO, the U.S.) and adding to the glory of the lost empire.