In recent days, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been in Mongolia, as part of his own Ostpolitik, finding new non-Western partners with whom he can do business. With claims persistently linking Russia to the destruction of Flight MH17 over Ukraine (most recently from BBC’s Panorama), I asked Mongolian analysts what would happen had Russia accidentally destroyed a jet airliner of the national carrier MIAT. They said there would be an apology from the Kremlin and swift access to the crash site but there would be no further consequences, essentially because Mongolia’s power is at a vast disparity to that of Russia.

Putin’s prickliness towards any questioning of who brought down Flight MH17 could be that he feels threatened, not especially by sanctions as by geopolitical encroachment. Having declared that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century (a dubious claim given other horrors), the steady advancement of NATO and the EU into countries under Moscow’s control or jurisdiction has alarmed him. As Putin stated after the annexation of Crimea, there is only so much a spring can be coiled before it will bounce back.

Many accuse Putin of being a bellicose aggressor, prepared to stop at nothing to recreate the USSR, but that may be an overly crude portrait and could create unnecessary clashes in the future as both sides indulge in posturing. The great political theorist Kenneth Waltz (the father of scientific ‘structural realism’) conceived of states as self-contained actors who, exist in an anarchical world order, as power-maximisers. Some of his pupils believed states sought to maximise their capabilities so as to better dominate others, but Waltz himself thought that countries built up their power in order to defend themselves.

Since coming to power on the last day of 1999, everything Putin has done has been to unite and protect Russia, a fissiparous entity prone to centrifugal forces. As a former KGB agent, he has done this the only way he knows how by accruing greater power to the centre – and if this impinged on democratic freedoms so be it. This emphasis on the security establishment may have left him a prisoner within it but the direction of travel is the same – to defend Russian integrity and borders. In the second Chechen War, Putin brutally demonstrated that the disintegration process that had been ongoing since 1991 had come to an end. In 2008, he provoked Georgia into a war after the Bush administration had been overly familiar with the new anti-Russian regime and seized two pieces of nominal Georgian territory to deter NATO from ever inviting the Caucasus country into its alliance (Georgia has sought to apply again in the current febrile atmosphere). Then, after Putin’s puppet, ex-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, fled protests following the latter’s volte-face in snubbing the European Union for Putin’s Eurasian Union, Putin acted swiftly to seize Crimea and then foment unrest in eastern Ukraine.

If Russia is to be denied indirect control in areas the Kremlin regards as its backyard – the so-called ‘near abroad’ – and Western institutions encroach right up to its borders, it will take as much territory as possible off the state that wants to join the West. It’s a gamble, this pushback but so far Putin has not pushed too far. In 2008, had he wanted truly to recreate the Soviet Union, he would have completely conquered Georgia as was within his power. As Putin told outgoing European Commission chief José Manuel Barroso, if the former wanted he could take Kiev in two weeks.

This salami-slicing indicates caution. Putin once speculated that it was possible for Russia to join NATO and complete the dream of a common security zone from Vancouver to Vladivostok. But the accession of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to NATO was an affront and when democratic revolutions took place on Russia’s doorstep in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, invariably supported by the George W. Bush administration, Putin saw just one direction of travel from the West – to undermine Russia. The good realist that he is, the change of White House occupancy from Bush to Barack Obama did not alter things – individuals cannot change a state’s basic nature – despite the public relations stunt of a ‘reset’. If the West was to exclude Russia, then Putin would take for Russia what he could before it was irrevocably lost. If Georgia had been part of NATO in 2008, Russia would have been far more circumspect in its actions to avoid a full-scale war with the West.

So while there is a desire to give Putin a bloody nose for what he has done in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, from his side Putin is acting in what he sees as Russia’s long-term interests. The sanctions regime may be tough but he was reaching out to new allies in East Asia, in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and in Latin America before they were applied. If the West sought to undermine Russia, then he would seek like-minded allies who would support Moscow. The actions of the West in the first half of the last decade have set in motion a geopolitical confrontation that will take years, if not decades, to abate.