Ukraine is talking about joining NATO.
I don't have any special knowledge of what's happening in Russia or in Putin's head. But I have learned a little about human beings and government and power.
So, let's leave Putin for a second and let's go to 1962. Cuba is 90 miles away from Key West. The Russians are building missile launching sites in Cuba and Russian ships are en route to Cuba with the missiles that will point at the US. The US goes into panic mode. It didn't matter that we had missiles pointing at Russia in Europe and Asia. When they were pointed at us, 90 miles off shore, we felt mortally threatened. I remember that everyone was thinking about those bomb shelters people had been building in their backyards in anticipation of nuclear war. There was a lot palpable tension as Kennedy challenged the Russian ships on route to Cuba.
Reagan even went to war in Nicaragua voicing some sort of domino theory about how communists in Central America threatened our very existence. His March 16, 1986 speech begins:
"My fellow Americans:Whether Reagan believed this or was just trying to use fear to justify actions to protect American business interests in Central America, or both, I don't know. But surely Putin feels threatened, and Russians feel threatened, by the notion of NATO lapping up onto its borders.
I must speak to you tonight about a mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States. This danger will not go away; it will grow worse, much worse, if we fail to take action now. I'm speaking of Nicaragua, a Soviet ally on the American mainland only 2 hours' flying time from our own borders. With over a billion dollars in Soviet-bloc aid, the Communist government of Nicaragua has launched a campaign to subvert and topple its democratic neighbors. Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean sealanes, and, ultimately, move against Mexico. Should that happen, desperate Latin peoples by the millions would begin fleeing north into the cities of the southern United States or to wherever some hope of freedom remained."
So it's totally understandable that Putin is playing hardball here. Kennedy did over Cuba and Reagan did over Nicaragua.
I'm guessing also that Putin is in way over his head. He's gotten control of the Russian governmental and military apparatus, but there's no manual for making it work. He can't google "What should I do next to keep Europe and the US off my back while keeping the economy alive so Russian people don't start losing faith in me?" He's like the Wizard of Oz. He's got to be desperately making decisions as he goes along. His guiding principle is probably something like, "Don't show weakness." That's not to disparage Putin's abilities. Every leader, to some extent, is winging it when things go wrong. At least American presidents have a graceful escape when their term expires. Putin doesn't have such an easy, preordained curtain call. He's got to keep the music playing until he figures out a safe and dignified exit strategy. It can't be easy. And he knows there are lots of predators in Russia waiting for him to show signs of weakness.