Those close to the Kremlin say the Russian president doesn’t want to start another war in Ukraine. Still, he must show he’s ready to fight if necessary in order to stop what he sees as an existential security threat: the creeping expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a country that for centuries had been part of Russia.
After years of disillusion with the West, Putin has gradually sidelined voices in his inner circle who had called for limiting tensions and is increasingly isolated from other views by Covid-19 restrictions, according to people close to the leadership. Surrounded by hardliners, he sees Russia — and his two-decade rule — as under attack by the U.S. and its allies.
Efforts at outreach and cooperation that he made when he first came to power have been replaced by showdowns, sanctions and threats. Putin now sees pushback as the only language the West understands. With both sides dispatching warships and planes to convey their seriousness and warning of a new arms race as treaties lapse, the hardened approach raises risks far beyond Russia’s neighborhood. Disputes with Europe over gas supplies have shaken markets, while a refugee crisis the European Union says was orchestrated by Putin’s closest ally in Belarus is pressuring the bloc and fears of conflict in Ukraine have battered the ruble.