Given that such a war still seems unthinkable and irrational to so many in Moscow, Russian foreign policy experts generally see the standoff over Ukraine as the latest stage in Mr. Putin’s yearslong effort to compel the West to accept what he sees as fundamental Russian security concerns. In the 1990s, that thinking goes, the West forced a new European order upon a weak Russia that disregarded its historical need for a geopolitical buffer zone to its west. And now that Russia is stronger, these experts say, it would be reasonable for any Kremlin leader to try to redraw that map.

few Moscow analysts were predicting a military intervention. And skeptics of the view that Mr. Putin is bluffing point out that during the pandemic, he has already taken actions that earlier seemed unlikely. His harsh crackdown against the network of Aleksei A. Navalny, for example, has contradicted what had been a widely held view that Mr. Putin was happy to allow some domestic dissent as an escape valve to manage discontent.

“Putin, in the last year, has crossed a lot of Rubicons,” Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute based in Arlington, Va., said last week. “Folks who believe that something this dramatic is unlikely or improbable may not have observed that qualitative shift in the last two years.”

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