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Russian provocation: Bluster or genuine peril?

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Russian provocation: Bluster or genuine peril?There's a Russian spy ship off the coast of Connecticut. Crammed with eavesdropping equipment, the Viktor Leonov has loitered in these waters before, but its current visit is the latest in a string of provocations.The last few years have seen dangerous Russian "fly-bys" of US warships, close encounters in the skies, when Russian military aircraft have flown with transponders switched off, and the occasional Russian submarine hiding in Swedish waters.Earlier this month, according to the Pentagon, four Russian jets flew in an "unsafe and unprofessional" manner near a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea. Perhaps the Leonov's visit was a message: "If you turn up on our coast ..."Such provocative acts could easily lead to unintended consequences at a time when, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, channels for avoiding misunderstandings are frozen.And that risk also applies in Syria, where Russian and US bombers fly above a fluid battlefield in pursuit of very different objectives.In recent years, Russia's military has become more assertive and more capable, directed by the Kremlin to probe for weaknesses, sow uncertainty and exploit opportunities.Is Russia's obsession with Trump waning?What is Putin up to?For NATO officials, 2014 was the watershed year, when in the chaotic aftermath of protests in Ukraine, Russia's "little green men" grabbed Crimea.Sitting in Simferopol as Russian special forces consolidated their hold on Crimea, I wondered whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was "an opportunist, grabbing at chances to poke the West in the eye, or a clever strategist with the longer-term goal of restoring a greater Russia?"Two years on, I still don't have an answer.But there's no doubt the Russian military is leaner and more agile and the Kremlin wants to project Russian power. It's a potent combination.Not so long ago, Russia's armed forces were huge and relied upon overwhelming power - "a large hammer always in search of nails" as security analyst Michael Kofman puts it. Even the brief incursion into Georgia in 2008 was dogged by mishaps.View this interactive content on CNN.comIn the past decade, Russia has reportedly committed $700 billion to updating its armed forces in this decade, making them more mobile. But its defense budget is still far lower than that of the US, and according to several western studies, the modernization program has been disrupted by delays and corruption.Russia is using this modernized force to test US commitment to safeguarding international security and looking for signs of self-doubt, chinks in its armor.Iraq, Libya, Syria: these conflicts have hardly been triumphs for the West. They have fed a dislike among western publics of expensive foreign entanglements.Moscow will do all it can do to feed this mood, undermine institutions such as the European Union and NATO, and promote isolationism among western publics.And in the meantime it will look for further opportunities to project its own influence; its carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, for example, was recently spotted off the coast of Libya after a spell in Syrian waters.Russia's military might in numbersHow's he selling it?Vladimir Putin has frequently spoken of restoring Russia's "great power" status, even lamenting the passing of the Soviet Union.In doing this, he wants to cast the West as the aggressor, and so conjures up the ancient Russian fear of encirclement. And he has moved to avenge previous humiliations. In March 2014, as the Russian flag rose in Crimea, he insisted the West had lied to and deceived Russia on everything from Kosovo to NATO expansion and Libya.Just this week, Putin told Russia's intelligence service, the FSB, that NATO was "provoking us constantly and ... trying to draw us into confrontation," with "continued attempts to interfere in our internal affairs in a bid to destabilize the social and political situation in Russia itself," according to Russia Today.Russia, he told the FSB, was the true victim of espionage and a growing tide of cyberattacks."Many existing threats and challenges have only become more acute," Putin warned.Russia happy with new status in worldHow Russia has changed its way of warfareMuch analytical ink has been spilled about Russia's embrace of "hybrid warfare." A better term might be "unconventional aggression" -- the use of surrogates and proxies, as well as disinformation and propaganda.Deceiving, subverting, destabilizing: all of these tactics are cheaper and more deniable than sending in tanks or firing missiles. Electronic warfare, such as attacks on computer systems and internet communications, is a tool of growing importance, and has been used to great effect in Ukraine.Russia realizes that the Western militaries have a substantial technological edge, but in the words


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