On the Cato at Liberty blog, Benjamin H. Friedman notes that many commentators fatally misunderstand Russian foreign policy, due to an excessive focus on the intentions of the current government:
Commentators of all stripes seem to assume that Russia’s move into Georgia was driven by its increasingly autocratic nature. [...] It is worth considering whether this is a misperception. A powerful body of political science argues that states’ foreign policy actions are driven mostly by their circumstance and interests, not their regime type or the personality of the leaders. Regime type and personality affect how states interpret their circumstances, but maybe not as much as we tend to think. The United States is not particularly tolerant of seemingly hostile states in its near abroad either, whether they are democracies or not.
As Friedman states, there is an entire body of international relations that focuses more on the circumstances and interests of countries. Still, it is interesting that much the same argument was made about Russia by the current Prime Minister of the Ukraine, Yuliya Tymoshenko, in what now seems an eerily prescient 2007 Foreign Affairs article:
For most of the past 15 years, the response to Russian actions by the United States and Europe has been driven by their perceptions of Russian reform. Western policy seems to be based on the premise that peaceful evolution can be ensured by democracy and by concentrating Russia's energies on developing a market economy. Western diplomacy has thus seen its main task as strengthening Russian reform, with the experience of the Marshall Plan rather than the traditional considerations of foreign policy in mind.
But a far more important factor than reform is Russia's attempt to restore its preeminence in the territories it once controlled. The Russia that emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union on Christmas Day 1991 came with borders that reflect no historical precedent. Accordingly, Russia is devoting much of its energy to restoring political influence in, if not control of, its lost empire. Alongside this effort has come a shift of Russia's focus eastward, making it a more active participant in the dynamic Asia created by China's rise.
Tymoshenko's article considers Russia's rise and what the west can do about it from various angles. There are many more nuggets in there. The section on 'pipeline politics' does make a mistake, in failing to take note of Russia's status as a transit country for Central Asian (former Soviet) oil and gas. This is an important factor in Russian policy.
Coming back to (mis)perceptions, the widespread western perception of Russia's authoritarian turn may itself be mistaken, as a recent thesis by Kevin Cyron 'The Misconception of Russian Authoritarianism' notes. The thesis is being published as a series on Russia Blog.
Many analyses you see of Russia spend far too much energy on the opaque nature of the regime, and tend to degenerate into Kremlinology. Some western governments seem to act as if Russia is mysterious and different, its intentions forever unknowable. This is not helpful. We need to treat Russia like a normal country that acts in its perceived interests. As Tymoshenko argues, that does not mean that we should be any less vigilant.