MOSCOW — At this moment of crescendo for the Ukraine crisis, it all comes down to what kind of leader President Vladimir V. 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 that Mr. Putin has used to socially distance himself this month from European leaders flying in for crisis talks symbolizes, 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.
capture Crimea without firing a single shot. The proxy war that 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 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,” Ms. Likhacheva said, and they would be likely to deploy powerful new weaponry along Russia’s western frontiers.
as an existential threat to his country, said that Moscow’s growing military presence on the Ukrainian border was a response to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.