Several foreign policy experts who spoke to CNBC said that one way Putin will attempt to expand and in some cases regain control in Central and Eastern Europe is by working closely with President Trump, who has repeatedly expressed interest in working with the Russian leader.
"Putin is hoping to meet with Trump sooner rather than later," said Angela Stent, Georgetown University's director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and a former intelligence officer at the U.S. National Intelligence Council.
Stent said the Russian president feels that his country is overlooked by the United States. Former President Barack Obama, who had a famously bad relationship with Putin, a month ago characterized Russia as a potentially dangerous but deeply flawed nation: "They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn't produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms. They don't innovate."
Words like that sting not just Putin but also regular Russians, many of whom remember their country being a superpower not long ago. (At a time when Putin, incidentally, was a KGB agent.)
"Putin wants Russia to be taken seriously, and to ensure his views are taken into account," said Stent.
What seemed impossible a year ago, may not be too far-fetched if Trump continues to encourage a stronger relationship — whether it be geopolitical or economic — with Russia.
A lot comes back to those sanctions.
"While everybody is saying they are surviving with sanctions, let me tell you every morning Putin is praying for sanctions to be lifted, and every evening he is praying for sanctions to be lifted," Bill Browder, head of Hermitage Capital and a longtime anti-Russia activist told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switerzerland, on Friday.
"It would be the biggest single gift that could ever be given to him if it was to happen with the new Trump administration," he said.