Russia will not start war with NATO. Russia is much weaker than was USSR. 30 Years ago USSR was vast empire with alliance from Central Europe to China, and many 3rd world countries sympathetic to communist ideas. However, it does not mean than Russia bear is powerless. Putin will balance between idea of great Russia, respected power, and his own ability to sell the war to the nation. Not everyone in Russia is eager for war in distant Syria. However, Russia since the time of Tsars was great strategist by pitting various power houses and alliances against each other. The Great Game in Central Asia with UK is an excellent example.
During the war in Donbas last year, there were several good observations on Putin strategy:
- Divide NATO among each other (Poland and Baltic states vs Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia).
- Break USA hold upon NATO by supporting politicians sympathetic to Russia (Schroeder is considered German protege of Putin). Today it is closer cooperation with France. France and Russia had deep relationship and after 1917 Paris became destination for Russian emigres.
- Weaken democratic principles in the Western countries by supporting parties that are nationalists, anti-american, and ride on widespread dissatisfaction with establishment. In France it is Le Pen, in the Eastern Europe it is support of transformed communist parties. Russia is also influencing parties in Sweden and Finland which are critical of these two countries to ally with NATO.
One major issue Russia faces at this moment is recession. It is going on for a while and there is a little signs that it will get better. Some estimates put cumulative losses of Russian GDP to be 15% by 2017 which will be one of the deepest recession in Russia since 1992. There are no indication that oil prices will rise, so entire economic performance during Putin reign will be whipped out by crisis and inflation.
When it comes to Syria, I had mentioned that Russian involvement will change very little with bombing campaign without ground deployment. Asad will never recover to control entire Syria. His troops barely hold 20% of the territory. Additionally, Russia, France, USA are fighting ideology, not specific state entity, so any victory is very illusive for anyone.