What motivates Russia? The three traditional horsemen of statehood: fear, power, and glory.
Fear: Richard Weitz offers that Russia is more likely to fear Central Asia due to their instability, demographics, and ethnic and religious, etc. issues than China, the U.S., Western Europe, or the other usual suspects.
[Russian] Defence leaders seemed more focused on Central Asia, believing that instability in there will increase from the contagion effects of the social, economic and political disturbances in North Africa and from the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan in the coming years. Those I heard from are especially worried about renewed civil strife in Kyrgyzstan, the rise of Islamist militarism in Tajikistan, and the failure of the United States and NATO to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan before they withdraw their combat troops. Russian policymakers fear that complications resulting from these changes will increase the threat of terrorism and narcotics trafficking to Russia, as well as challenge Russian economic interests there, such as access and control over Central Asian oil and natural gas supplies.
It’s interesting that Russia shows an interest in containment, the post-World War II approach to dealing with Communism (now from a non-Communist point of view, of course. Of course).
Power: containment by the Russians will boost their relative power and position as an energy producer, especially if stability in the Middle East and Africa devolve.
Returning to fear, an element of the Russian approach has been through alliances. Again, Weitz offers:
To address the very real fears of chaos in Central Asia, Russia is relying heavily on the seven-member Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) [with] member states, which include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan… [As well as] the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which unlike the CSTO includes China but not Armenia and Belarus.
Since Tiananmen Square, there has been significant Russian arms sales to China; today, not so much. China has to do something with their armies of engineers and technologists, right? Iran? The Russian (in-public) take is that they aren’t nearly so crazy as they seem and as such, actually don’t pose much of a threat…to Europe. Turkey is seen as a Russian security partner, despite their NATO membership.
But if Russia really doesn’t see China as a threat, why do the Russians want to keep all their tactical nuclear weapons?
Glory: nuclear weapons are a status symbol of sorts and are the only way Russia can today be considered in any way to be a superpower. Similarly, those tactical nukes may be used to ‘deter’ Western Europe, Pakistan, Central Asia, China, and India as the Russians require.