Steve Forbes explains in the latest issue of Forbes magazine why conventional wisdom about Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s propensity for provocative behavior might be wrong.

THE IDEA that Vladimir Putin would move against the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia–all with sizable Russian minorities–seems unthinkable to most observers, if only because it would destroy the whole post-World War II edifice of Western security, as the three nations are members of NATO. Even the ever feckless Barack Obama and the timid leaders of Europe would be forced to take decisive action.

Maybe. But given the West’s responses to Russia’s invasions of Georgia and Ukraine, Putin may well be tempted to make a series of probes, after slicing and dicing Ukraine. He won’t send in troops and armor, as he’s done in Ukraine, but he’ll see what unrest he can create to start “softening up” the Balts to become political vassals of Moscow. Trained agents and provocateurs will pour into these states, and their economies will suffer terribly from the turmoil and pressure. The U.S. and NATO won’t know how to respond. Without an overt invasion Putin may well succeed in gutting the essence of NATO. He will surely try.

What the West should be doing is clear enough, but this will happen only with forceful American leadership. …

… Recent NATO promises to create a rapid response force won’t do, given Putin’s aggression. A Western military presence would stiffen the spines of Baltic governments and sharply improve their morale. It would also give Baltic separatists second thoughts, as they’d have a harder time getting effective assistance from Moscow.