Vladimir Putin is an expert at bluffing and keeping the West on its toes, pushing relations to the edge before pivoting without warning. But, hemmed in and fuming, he is deadly serious about being heard on Ukraine.

Those close to the Kremlin say the Russian president doesn’t want to start another war in Ukraine. Still, he must show he’s ready to fight if necessary in order to stop what he sees as an existential security threat: the creeping expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a country that for centuries had been part of Russia.

After years of disillusion with the West, Putin has gradually sidelined voices in his inner circle who had called for limiting tensions and is increasingly isolated from other views by COVID-19 restrictions, according to people close to the leadership. Surrounded by hard-liners, he sees Russia — and his two-decade rule — as under attack by the U.S. and its allies.