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The contradictory, sometimes menacing messages from the Kremlin have stumped Western officials and Russia experts, showing the Russian leader’s desire to keep his rivals on edge.

For years, Mr. Putin has fumed over NATO’s expansion eastward and American support for pro-Western sentiment in Ukraine; now, by creating a new security crisis that threatens to complicate President Biden’s agenda, he has succeeded in getting the issue to the forefront in Washington.  “For the first time in 30 years, the United States has agreed to discuss issues that it was impossible to discuss even a year ago,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of a political analysis firm, R.Politik.

The problem with Mr. Putin’s approach is that it gives his diplomats next to no flexibility to negotiate on Russia’s behalf, and sometimes leaves them struggling to maintain a coherent message. Ms. Stanovaya warned that even if diplomats did reach some kind of deal, hawks in Moscow who have more of Mr. Putin’s ear could soon help derail it.

Analysts noted that Mr. Ryabkov, from the diplomatic side, most likely did not even know what military options the Kremlin was considering. The virus-free cocoon Mr. Putin has tried to establish around himself has meant that even confidants are forced to spend days in quarantine before being allowed into the same room with him, further reducing his connections with the outside world.

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