Last summer in The Washington Quarterly, Clifford Gaddy and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution forecasted various trends about how Russia’s grand strategy may be different after Putin no longer controls the country, perhaps in 2024. Certainly, as long as Putin maintains effective control over Russia, his style will dictate Russian policies, which have turned more assertive after invading Georgia in 2008. Through writing this article, the authors disentangled Putin’s mindset from Russia’s broader realities—including its history, geography, culture, and economics—and developed eight possible scenarios.

Reminiscent of a March-Madness-style playoff, they whittle these scenarios down to the more likely ones. First, they eliminated Post-Westphalian Russia (which would not emphasize the nation-state’s role in global affairs), NATO Russia (which would be so Westernized as to join NATO), and Brezhnevian Russia (which would seek to regain the USSR’s territory) either because the Russian people would not accept them (as in the Post-Westphalian and NATO options) or because it would be too expensive and risky (as in the Brezhnevian option). At an event at Brookings last October, they presented the other options—including Pro-Western Russia (which would work with the West on various issues), Minimalist Russia (which would retreat strategically to reform the economy), Reaganov Russia (which would produce a strong military but not use it much), Besieged Russia (which is essentially the same as Putin’s current mindset), and Greater Russia (which would include all Russian speakers within Russia’s sphere of influence). Of these options, the authors conclude that Reaganov Russia and Besieged Russia are the most likely scenarios, though not inevitable.

Reaganov Russia is named after what the authors see as the essence of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy, specifically how his administration built up the American military without using it often, encouraged a patriotic citizenry, and oversaw massive economic growth. In a similar way, Russia could parade its most-advanced, shiny weapons to boost Russian pride while the military-industrial complex revitalized parts of the Russian economy. Even though Russia would be spending more on its military, Gaddy and O’Hanlon believe that Reaganov Russia would be a good partner for the West, even if not ideal.

In a Besieged Russia paradigm, the Russian people would continue to feel grievances against the West for various slights, including NATO expansion and support for Kosovo. They would read their history and geography and conclude that Russia must dominate its sphere of influence to prevent foreign domination. Similar to a Reaganov Russia, this scenario would include robust armed forces and patriotism, but a Besieged Russia would actually use its military.

After Gaddy and O’Hanlon presented their scenarios at the Brookings event, I was able to ask my question (to hear my exact phrasing, watch the CSPAN video or see pages 31-33 in the transcript). If in 10 to 20 years from now Americans or Europeans are observing Russia, how could they tell the difference between a Reaganov Russia and a Besieged Russia? It seems very likely that the casual observer may not be able to tell a difference, and experts would probably disagree strongly. There is a high risk that the American or European governments may misread a military buildup under a Reaganov Russia and somehow provoke the country into becoming a Besieged Russia, or perhaps worse.

In response, Gaddy agreed that the two scenarios were rather similar, especially on the surface, and foreigner observers could be easily confused. Reaganov Russia has a big military mainly for show and “mainly for purposes other than actually using it to achieve direct military goals of conquering territory or people or whatever.” Meanwhile, Besieged Russia “is literally doing exactly that with [its] military.” They both have the “same size military, the same force structure or whatever, but with a different motivation and mentality behind them.” Judging from this response, analyzing Russia’s motivations and mentality could help distinguish between the two and avoid unnecessary confrontation.

But then Gaddy added another layer that makes the calculus even more complicated and dangerous: “To me it’s even more difficult to distinguish between the two because I think that it’s at least possible to think about some of [the] very blatantly aggressive over-actions on the part of the Russians, now or in the future, that are really not designed to achieve what everybody is claiming.” For example, Russians could say they were motivated to invade Crimea to protect Russian speakers there, but the real motivation may be to protect the Sevastopol naval base. Or the Russians could say they were motivated to intervene in Syria to stop ISIS, but the real motivation may be to prevent Assad’s collapse. In future cases, the Russians may be motivated to demonstrate their power briefly, but then the world reacts forcefully. “In the Reaganov option, you are trying to do things that show—give people the impression you have all this power, both at home and abroad. [With] the potential for miscalculation, and as Mark [said], misperception, how are we supposed to know, ‘Oh, that was just a demonstration.’… There’s a real risk of miscalculation on both sides.”

Because the difference between a Reaganov Russia and a Besieged Russia would be difficult for foreign governments and media to discern, despair may be a natural reaction, especially when miscalculation on either side could escalate into a crisis that leads to a more-hostile Russia. Yet understanding this possibility can help analysts prepare and hopefully prevent an unnecessary crisis. If so, then O’Hanlon and Gaddy’s forecasting and analysis would prove more than worthwhile.

Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics.

Photo Credit: 217th Guards Airborne Regiment of 98th Guards Airborne Division during the 2013 Moscow Victory Day Parade, via Wikimedia Commons.