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Russian riot police officers block a street during a rally in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, in central Saint-Petersburg, on April 21, 2021.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

What was surprising this week was not that Vladimir Putin threatened the Western world with thermonuclear annihilation.

That threat, uttered during his annual state-of-the-nation speech Wednesday, was not a new development and certainly not an unexpected one. During his 22 years in power, Mr. Putin has more than once threatened to aim his country’s ballistic-missile arsenal at the European Union or North America or take violent revenge on the West.

His specific threat was typically vague. After suggesting that anyone who crosses some undefined Russian “red line” will “regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time,” he spent some time detailing Russia’s new high-tech nuclear weapons, with Bond villain names such as Dagger and Poseidon, the latter of which can purportedly trigger atomic tsunamis.

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Nor was it particularly surprising that Russia this week massed more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, leaving Kyiv and the wider world wondering if they were poised for an invasion.

That’s what happened in 2014, when Russia marched into Ukraine to seize control of Crimea. It’s what happened in 2008, when Mr. Putin invaded Georgia to take de facto control of two border territories.

While he appeared to have withdrawn the troops on the Ukrainian border by the end of the week, this too was part of his pattern of sowing chaos and distrust in neighbouring countries.

Likewise, it’s not surprising at all that Mr. Putin was engaged in lengthy talks Thursday with Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, leaving many to wonder if there was a plan to integrate the two countries, perhaps by having Mr. Putin use his forces to help Mr. Lukashenko crush a popular democracy movement that has effectively rejected him.

None of these developments is surprising or new, because whenever Mr. Putin’s grip on the levers of power has seemed threatened, and whenever angry middle-class Russians have massed in the streets in significant numbers, he has turned to the same tropes and tools: the restoration of the Soviet empire’s territorial expanses, the freeing of the mythic Russian and Orthodox heartlands to the country’s west, the creation of a world-leading civilization and economy in “Eurasia,” the battle against the menace of the liberal-democratic West.

This doesn’t mean Mr. Putin is simply engaged in cynical electoral calculation and “wag-the-dog” manipulation of military violence for mere self-empowerment. Everything suggests he really does believe – and wants to promote and export – that constellation of anti-liberal ideological, religious and geopolitical beliefs.

But he chooses to instrumentalize those beliefs most dramatically when things are going badly at home.

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And things are going badly. The living standards of ordinary Russians, which improved dramatically during Mr. Putin’s first decade in power, have not risen measurably since 2009. His popularity has slumped.

That his chief domestic political opponent, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny, is in prison for no legitimate reason and possibly close to death is another thing that is not by itself surprising. Most who publicly oppose Mr. Putin have ended up imprisoned, exiled or dead.

This time, however, Russians have noticed. The horribly botched efforts to kill, remove or silence Mr. Navalny have accomplished the opposite – and have mesmerized a growing number of Russians, who have hit the streets by the tens of thousands in all of the country’s 11 time zones.

What was really surprising about this week? That Mr. Putin didn’t even try to offer Russians anything new or positive, beyond modest handouts to compensate for the country’s awful pandemic losses.

“Perhaps most telling,” said Sam Greene, the head of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, as he listened to Mr. Putin’s speech Wednesday, is that there was “nothing about rising growth or incomes, nothing about the number of jobs created … Gone are the days of ‘catching up to Portugal’ in per capita GDP or doubling GDP overall.”

Dr. Greene concluded: “What Putin did not do today – and what he has not done for some time – is offer Russians a vision of the future that looks like anything other than a continuation of the present.”

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That continuation of a barely reasonable present has become his only survival tactic. Well into his third decade in power, penned in by global sanctions but with plenty of money to spend, the odds are strong that Mr. Putin will exceed Joseph Stalin’s 24 years in power.

But in order to maintain that tissue of legitimacy, he has led Russians into a never-ending carousel of self-isolation, confrontation and symbolic victory – one that terrifies the world, but leads nowhere in particular.

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