Updated at 22:06,23-05-2018

Newsweek: Where will Putin strike next? Ukraine? Georgia? Belarus?

Pavel K. Baev, Newsweek

Russia's president thinks Donald Trump is not ready to meet a sudden challenge.

This article first appeared on the Brookings Institution site.

In the first seven weeks of the Donald Trump administration, Russia has been as hot an issue as it gets. Amid the scramble to do damage control, the most reasonable advice for Washington is to take a breath, sort out the sequence of moves and draw appropriate red lines.

Its often assumed that the Russian leadership will merely wait for the whirlwind of scandals to blow over, but theres a real risk that President Vladimir Putin will take a proactive stance and throw another of his trademark surprises.

In principle (which in Russian political lingo means in a different world), it makes perfect sense for Moscow to be patient. The scarlet letter marking He-Who-Spoke-With-the-Ambassador will fade, to be replaced by interactions with reliable interlocutors in the bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, many experts in Moscow are now inclined to argue that the chance of striking a deal with Trumps team is lost and that only tough tests of will are forthcoming.

Newsweek: Where will Putin strike next? Ukraine? Georgia? Belarus?

T-72B tanks of the armed forces of Belarus are seen on display on May 9, 2015, in Minsk. Pavel K. Baev writes that Vladimir Putin's frustration at not receiving proper attention (in his view) from Donald Trump may lead him to conclude that now is the time for catching the wavering West by surprise. Georgia also is a convenient and easy-to-reach target, and even friendly Belarus is worried about Russian military pressure, Baev says. And there is always Ukraine.

Putin, quite possibly, holds a different opinion. Doing deals is what he understands best and excels athed be reluctant to give up on Trump as a negotiating partner. Putins recent meeting with Darren Woods, Exxon Mobils new CEO, was probably intended as a signal to U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson and his boss about Russias readiness to bargain. Putin probably is, but he might be pushed in a different direction.

Knowing little about social networks, Putin may be inclined to disregard the daily flow of tweets coming from the White House. What he certainly takes seriously are the decisions that point to new policy priorities, muddled as they might seem now. Four such decisions should be matters of serious concern in the Kremlin.

First of all, the intention to increase the U.S. defense budget by some $54 billion comes as a grave warning. Russia has been investing heavily in modernizing its military machine for the past five years, but now the countrys protracted economic decline has necessitated cuts to the over-ambitious defense plans.

Many half-accomplished programslike the Yasen-class nuclear submarine or the fifth generation PAK-FA fighterhave been delayed, while the costs of ongoing interventions in places such as Syria and Ukraine keep piling up.

Trumps resolution to boost U.S. military capabilities is not only a reminder of Russias military-industrial inferiority but also a confirmation of his proposition to deal with Russia from a position of strength. This doesnt sit well in Moscow at all.

Second, Trumps stated disinclination to engage in talks on strategic arms control caught Putin by surprise in the first (and so far only) telephone conversation since Trump moved into the Oval Office.

The Russian leader had turned down every proposition from President Barack Obama on possible new cuts of nuclear arsenals, expecting it to be a more favorable topic for conversation with his successor. Now he has to assess the scope of U.S. nuclear modernization.

On top of that, there is a substantiated accusation that Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which Moscow cannot make disappear by flat denials.

Third, Russian experts had eagerly predicted a deepening discord between the United States and its European allies and a profound confusion inside NATO.

Instead, firm assertions by the vice president, secretary of state and others on the U.S. commitment to the alliance have been accompanied by the demand that NATO allies increase defense spending. The Europeans see the need to take this demand seriously, and every euro of additional investments in their long-starved militaries buys new capabilities for containing the Russian threat.

The top brass in Moscow are not amused, in particular, by NATOs determined buildup of collective defense assets in the Baltic theater.

Fourth, there is now strong U.S. pressure on Russias most sensitive pain point: the price of oil. For many months, Moscow had been in negotiation with OPEC about production cuts, seeking to achieve some upward trend in this market, only to experience another price drop in the past couple of weeks.

The primary driver of this volatility is the relaxation of regulations in the United States, bringing new drilling that over-compensates for all the OPEC cartel machinations. The Russian ruble has duly depreciated, and any promised economic stabilization before next years national election is unlikely at best. The economy will continue to stagnate.

There were two kinds of optimistic expectations in Moscow regarding the Trump era: dealmaking and confusion. The first expectation, which is fading under the impact of accumulating disappointments, would translate into a policy of patience and preparation for pragmatic bargaining. The second expectationwhich presumes confusion in alliances and a weakening of U.S. leadershipinstead points to the need to exploit early opportunities.

Putin generally prefers bargaining, but he has also developed a taste for proactive moves and enjoys watching his counterparts resulting dismay. His frustration at not receiving proper attention (in his view) from Washington may lead him to conclude that now is the time for catching the wavering West by surprise.

Putin doesnt have that many options for a forceful move. In some easily accessible places, particularly around the three Baltic states, NATOs red lines have already been drawn quite firmly. The intervention in Syria remains a useful tool, and there has been a flurry of Middle Eastern intrigues in Moscow recently.

This region contains, however, the most promising targets for cooperation with the United States (as the second meeting between top generalsValery Gerasimov and Joseph Dunfordconfirms). Spoiling this interesting beginning with an aggressive move (for instance, in Libya) would not be smart.

There is always Ukraine, where nothing resembling a cease-fire in the Donbass war zone has been established, and the Minsk process is hopelessly deadlocked (yet still the only hope). Putin could launch a spring offensive aimed at expanding the rump Novorossiya, which is too small to make strategic sense but too big to keep on Russian budget books. Georgia also is a convenient and easy-to-reach target, and even friendly Belarus is worried about Russian military pressure.

Predicting Putins specific move is a conundrum, but expecting him to do nothing is a fallacy. He has reasons to assume that Ukraine fatigue in the West is growing and that the Trump administration is not ready to meet a sudden challengewhich would aggravate the confusion in NATO to the point of shambles.

Give this prospect, it is time for Washington and the West to deliver some convincing dissuasion.

Pavel K. Baev is a nonresident senior fellow, foreign policy, at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.