If I felt confident that Putin’s head were in charge, I’d see this as a characteristically muscular political gesture, a heavy-handed nudge to Kiev to make him an offer to stand down. However, Putin’s heart now seems committed to following through and not appearing cowed by Western challenges.
Of course, all leaders make decisions based on both rational calculation and emotional response. But in this case, Putin’s unexpected bifurcation matters more for a number of reasons.
The first of which is because of the very lack of checks and balances. Putin’s regime was never as unreservedly autocratic as it often seemed. Putin was first among equals, deriving much of his power precisely from his ability to manage, balance, and build coalitions within a varied and fragmented elite. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, he has become increasingly isolated, apparently by his own design. Bit by bit, this is eroding his position. But given that the controls on him were political rather than institutional, it leaves him virtually unconstrained at the moment.