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Russia’s Vladimir Putin: Crafty strategist or aggrieved and reckless leader?

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) – At this moment of crescendo for the Ukraine crisis, it all comes down to what kind of leader President Vladimir Putin is.

In Moscow, many analysts remain convinced that the Russian president is essentially rational, and that the risks of invading Ukraine would be so great that his huge troop buildup makes sense only as a very convincing bluff. But some also leave the door open to the idea that he has fundamentally changed amid the pandemic, a shift that may have left him more paranoid, more aggrieved and more reckless.

The 20-foot-long table Mr Putin has used to socially distance himself this month from European leaders flying in for crisis talks symbolises, to some longtime observers, his detachment from the rest of the world.

For almost two years, Mr Putin has ensconced himself in a virus-free cocoon unlike that of any Western leader, with state television showing him holding most key meetings by teleconference alone in a room and keeping even his own ministers at a distance on the rare occasions that he summons them in person.

Speculation over a leader’s mental state is always fraught, but as Mr Putin’s momentous decision approaches, Moscow commentators puzzling over what he might do next in Ukraine are finding some degree of armchair psychology hard to avoid.

“There’s this impression of irritation, of a lack of interest, of an unwillingness to delve into anything new,” Dr Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist and former member of Putin’s human rights council, said of the president’s recent public appearances. “The public is being shown that he has been in practical isolation, with ever fewer breaks, since the spring of 2020.”

A large-scale invasion of Ukraine, many analysts point out, would be an enormous escalation compared with any of the actions Mr Putin has taken before. In 2014, the Kremlin’s subterfuge allowed Russian forces stripped of identifying markings to capture Crimea without firing a single shot. The proxy war Mr Putin fomented in Ukraine’s east allowed him to deny being a party to the conflict.

“Starting a full-scale war is completely not in Putin’s interest,” said Dr Anastasia Likhacheva, the dean of world economy and international affairs at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It is very difficult for me to find any rational explanation for a desire to carry out such a campaign.”

Even if Mr Putin were able to take control of Ukraine, she noted, such a war would accomplish the opposite of what the president says he wants: rolling back the Nato presence in Eastern Europe.

In the case of a war, the Nato allies would be “more unified than ever”, Dr Likhacheva said, and they would be likely to deploy powerful new weaponry along Russia’s western frontiers.

At home, Mr Putin has always been keen to project the aura of a sober statesman, overruling the nationalist firebrands on prime-time talk shows and in parliament who have been urging him for years to annex more of Ukraine.

And while he casts himself as Russia’s guarantor of stability, he could face stark economic headwinds from Western sanctions and social upheaval if there are casualties on the battlefield and among civilians. Millions of Russians have relatives in Ukraine.

For the moment, Russians largely appear to subscribe to the Kremlin narrative that the West is the aggressor in the Ukraine crisis, said Mr Denis Volkov, director of the Levada Centre, an independent pollster in Moscow.

The alarmist messaging out of Washington about an imminent Russian invasion has only bolstered that view, he said, because it makes the West seem to be the one that is “exerting pressure and escalating tensions”.

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