Russian Foreign Policy has not changed for five hundred years. Its three critical issues are year round warm water ports, control of the "near abroad", and preventing any single power from dominating Europe.
With respect to the near abroad, Russian objectives include the need for a buffer that, at worst, is friendly and, at best, is totally controlled. In the Soviet era, the expansion of the almost totally controlled "near abroad" provided one of the most substantial buffers ever experienced by Russia.
NATO's purpose, according to Churchill's military adviser Lord Ismay, was to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.
During the Cold War, Russia's "near abroad" provided reasonably adequate defense from any ground based threat that NATO might pose. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the liberation of almost all of the countries that comprise the "near abroad", Russia believes that its security is threatened by the fact that a substantial portion of the "near abroad" includes countries that are now NATO members or, like Ukraine and Georgia, are potential candidates for NATO membership.
The current purpose of NATO is unclear and it is not easy for the Russians to regard it as anything other than a threat. It looks suspiciously like the dominant power controlling Europe that Russia wants to avoid at all costs.
Russia is not being entirely irrational here. During the Soviet era, St. Petersburg was 1,200 miles from the nearest NATO territory: now it is only 60 miles.
That brings us to Georgia - a NATO wannabe - which, last week, indulged in an ill-judged and provocative invasion of a breakaway province that is under Russian protection. With America overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, NATO is in no position to do anything serious. No one, then, should be surprised that Russia has slapped down a tiresome and uncooperative member of the "near abroad".
The Russian message is clear - and aimed at other members of the near abroad: understand that any commitments on the part of America and NATO are largely worthless. We (Russia) are the regional power; your recognition of of our power and your prompt acquiescence to our desires, as well as compliance with our instructions, is expected.