Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent In London

What goes through Putin's mind but not Russians' stomachs

Russian leader wants to drive a wedge between European nations, and between Europe and the US.

The ceasefire in Ukraine appears to be holding: Apart from a few skirmishes, mercifully little blood has been shed since a ceasefire between Russian-backed rebels and Ukraine's armed forces was concluded in September.

But this eerie calm is misleading, and represents just a lull before a bigger storm. For although Russian President Vladimir Putin remains as inscrutable as ever, it is becoming increasingly clear that Moscow is settling down to a broader confrontation with the West. This is a tussle which will shape global politics for years to come.

It is a fallacy to believe that countries which unleash wars do so in pursuit of precise objectives, and the Ukraine-Russian crisis is a classic example of strategy made up as events developed. All the indications are that, when he ordered his crack special forces into Ukraine in March this year, Mr Putin did not have a clear objective in mind: he was determined to avenge what he perceived as Russia's humiliation in Ukraine at the hands of the West, yet he had scant ideas of what was Russia's "end game".

Strategic logic

STILL, wars do create their own strategic logic, and when Mr Putin discovered that the seizure of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula was swift and painless, he proceeded to annex that territory into Russia and expanded his country's objectives by supporting ethnic Russian separatists in the rest of Ukraine.

However, he has done so step by step, and often in a hesitating, probing manner; just enough to ensure that the separatists are not overrun by Ukraine's armed forces, but not so much that it provokes a broader response from the West, or precipitate Ukraine's total collapse. Having now decided to temporarily halt the Ukraine offensive, the key question preoccupying decision-makers in Europe and the United States is where does Mr Putin's Russia want to go from here. Opinions vary, but none are reassuring.

Most Russia-watchers agree that he is not planning an outright invasion of Ukraine, since that would entail a far bloodier and unpredictable war, as well as the kind of sacrifices for which the Russian population remains utterly unprepared. It is noticeable that, throughout the current crisis, the thorny topic of Russia's own military casualties in Ukraine  - which, according to Western intelligence services, may have amounted to at least a hundred dead - was not even once openly discussed in the Russian media, a clear indication that Mr Putin is aware of his domestic limitations: the sight of "body-bags" returning home will not be tolerated by the Russian public.

Nor is Russia planning to directly undermine other East European countries; Moscow knows that, while Ukraine was neither a member of the European Union nor of Nato, other nations in Europe belong to both institutions and any attack on them would trigger a firm military response from the West, one in which the US will also be involved.

Main objective

BUT that does not mean that Russia is devoid of options. For Mr Putin's main objective has never been Ukraine as such, but the shattering of the current security structures in Europe, an arrangement put in place 25 years ago when the Soviet Union collapsed, but which he has always regarded as designed to stop Russia from ever becoming great again. And there are many ways short of war to achieve this objective.

One sophisticated Russian strategy currently unfolding is to treat groups of European countries in very different ways. The small Baltic states adjacent to Russia on Europe's northern flank are being subjected to almost daily harassment. Most of this is of a petty nature: the cutting of a ship's cables, the interruption of gas supplies or the occasional, brief border incursion. But the harassment is relentless, and designed to keep Russia's smaller neighbours on edge.

Meanwhile, big East European countries like Poland and Romania are being subjected to more persistent Russian retaliation, such as trade bans.

Yet at the same, the Russians are also embracing a number of former communist East European nations which they consider as friendly, countries such as Serbia in the Balkans, or Hungary and the Czech Republic in the centre of the continent.

Finally, a special place in Russia's charm offensive is reserved for Germany, Europe's biggest and most influential nation, whose lost friendship the Russians are desperate to regain.

The objective of this multi-layered strategy is to drive a wedge between various European nations and between Europe and the US, in order to ensure that the current economic sanctions imposed on Russia are either formally lifted, or disintegrate by default. For the Western sanctions, which have coincided with low oil prices, are hurting the Russian economy badly, and far more than Mr Putin would care to admit.

Russian hope

IN THE medium term, however, the Russian hope is that the split which Mr Putin is seeking to engineer in Europe would paralyse both Nato and the European Union from within, and thereby unleash the security transformation which Russia wants, towards a continent over which Moscow exercises greater control, as one divided into spheres of influence.

More significantly, this strategy is underpinned by the launch of a new, official Putin political ideology, one which portrays Russia not merely as a nation, but also as a unique global entity, a bastion of "traditional" values against a smug, self-satisfied, corrupt West, which is doomed to decline.

The new official ideology borrows elements from Russia's recent communist past - such as the rejection of the consumer society and of globalisation - with perennially historic themes such as the unique nature of Russia's Orthodox Christian religion; recently, Mr Putin even organised a lavish celebration to mark the 200th anniversary of Russia's contribution to the defeat of Napoleon's France.

The objective of this ideological pursuit is transparent:  it's designed to  persuade ordinary Russians that they are doomed to confront the West, and that Mr Putin is the only person able to pursue this fight to its successful end.

Theoretically, a good case can be made that none of these Russian moves actually matter, and that the best response to Mr Putin's antics is to simply ignore them. For facts speak louder than words, and the facts contradict Russia's big-power fantasies. It may be the biggest country on the planet but, in numerical terms, the Russian nation is not much bigger than Japan's and, like the Japanese, it's both ageing and shrinking.

The Russian economy is about the size of Italy's, and nobody has ever lost any sleep about Italy's aspirations to superpower status.

Sure, the Russians have plenty of nuclear weapons, but these are useless in either holding territory or projecting influence.

So, US President Barack Obama was right when, in what must rank as one of his most wounding put-down phrases, he recently characterised Russia as, at most, a "regional power", not the sort of nation which can aspire to global influence. Still, the developments in Moscow are worrying. For they compel European governments to start thinking again about strategies of containing Russia, as well as devoting scarce financial resources to boosting military capabilities.

The return of the language of the Cold War is one of the most obvious and most depressing European realities at this moment.

Moscow's wishes

AND, although Russia's ability to influence world events is limited, its ability to prevent others from dealing successfully with conflicts remains limitless.

Russia's involvement in Syria did nothing to stop the violence in that country or prevent the rise of the murderous Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorist organisation, but was sufficiently powerful to prevent other powers from doing anything more concrete.

The same may happen with the nuclear negotiations between the West and Iran and to any other crises which may arise: Russia could become involved in such events not because it has any interests, but more in order to remind others that Moscow's wishes cannot be ignored.

The Russians will also spare no effort to enlist other nations to their anti-Western bandwagon: that is the essence of Russia's newly-discovered love of China, and of Russia's participation in the so-called Brics group of top developing countries comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

It is unlikely that Mr Putin will succeed in achieving his objectives, for he is repeating the same mistake committed by most of Russia's leaders over centuries: instead of concentrating on developing a strong economic power base which can subsequently be translated into global influence, he relies instead on a huge military, sustained by a Third World economy.

But that will not prevent Vladimir Putin from trying. And, as always, it will be up to the people of Russia to pay the price in real financial terms, and in forgone economic opportunities.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com