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STORY BY LEON ARON

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Published on March 20, 2021 2:35 AM

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AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov
A trained KGB agent, Vladimir Putin knows how to hide his feelings, but in 2013, after former President Barack Obama described him looking like "the bored kid in the back of the classroom," Putin let it be known that he was furious. And rightly so: kids in the back of the room are rarely ambitious. Putin, from day one of his rule 21 years ago, has had big, ambitious plans for himself and for Russia.

A far greater Soviet patriot than a Russian one, one of his first priorities when he became president in 2000 was to recover state ownership or control of the key political and economic assets lost in the Soviet Union's demise: major industries, courts, media, national politics. Then, in his third and fourth presidencies, he turned his ambition to geopolitics: to incursions into Ukraine and Crimea, an alliance with Syria, and various assaults on Western democracies with what the KGB used to call "active measures" recast as cyberattacks.

Now, on the seventh anniversary of the Crimean Anschluss, many of the same vectors that produced the invasion of Ukraine are here again. Anticipating their trajectory and formulating a plan ought to be among the Biden administration's main concerns.

There are at least two reasons for Putin to be thinking about similar big and bold actions today. One is strategic and abiding: glory for himself and his Russia, the two by now entwined in his mind. The other motive is tactical: He is working toward a lifetime presidency—a six-year term in 2024, at 72, and perhaps another in 2030— in a country where the economy and incomes have stagnated for over a decade and the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic has left deep scars. What's more, the arrest of pro-democracy leader Alexei Navalny has ignited waves of protest rallies in over 100 Russian cities for the first time since anti-Putin demonstrations in the winter of 2011-12.