The question now is not what Russia's intentions are. It's perfectly clear that they have after two decades of relative complacency returned to what comes naturally to them - aggressive expansion. They've begun a virtual occupation of Georgia, and now have threatened a response "beyond diplomacy" toward Poland for their agreement to house a U.S. missile shield designed to prevent attacks from Iran. Hungry for conflict, seeing enemies at every turn, and desperate for retribution after the loss of the Cold War and their dignity, they have once again assumed their old role as the belligerent would-be superpower, this time with Putin at the helm. We've not seen this kind of aggression since the Brezhnev days. What we need to ask ourselves now is how best to handle the situation. We are not prepared to go to war with Russia, and we don't want to. Any open military conflict with the Russians would result in massive casualties and, as always, carries the risk of a nuclear strike. We certainly don't want that, and I would hope that Putin doesn't either. For all his bravado, Putin still sees himself as Russia's new czar and thinks in old-fashioned terms. Nuclear weapons are leverage for him, but I don't think that he is any more anxious to use them than we are.
Still, there is a possibility, perhaps even a strong one, that a galvanized Russian military force may soon make it's way to Poland, at which point we'll have to decide what course of action to take to ensure that the march stops there. The obvious first step would be a halt in trade with Russia, but the challenge there is that much of Europe is dependent on that country for its energy needs. Convincing them to go along would be tricky. Second, Poland itself must be ready to make a stand with U.S. technological and strategic backing. Although it may not deter Russian military action altogether, it would at least make the march difficult and possibly cause Putin to think twice.
But the big step, and one that I certainly hope that we're taking behind closed doors is this: we need to reach out to China. China's economy and ours are so deeply intertwined that the Chinese can't afford for us to weaken. A resurgent Russia threatens our relationship because it destabilizes the U.S. and our allies. If we could convince the Chinese to even ally with us, even without necessarily committing fully, it would put Putin in the position of having foes on both sides of him. It's the old Kissinger approach, and it's certainly the best option available to us right now. If China, and in a perfect world India, could be persuaded to lean on the Russians, it could radically alter the situation and send a clear message to Putin that the world isn't going to tolerate his aggression.
Will it happen? I don't know. Because I've grown up in a period relatively free of large international conflicts, I have trouble believing that even the Russians would risk one. I hope that I'm right. But if I'm wrong, China may be the difference maker.