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Ukrainian servicemen stand at their positions on the front line with Russian-backed separatists, near the small city of Marinka, Donetsk region, on April 20, 2021.ALEKSEY FILIPPOV/AFP/Getty Images

The stage is set. With his country at the centre of multiple international dramas, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ensured that the world will be paying attention when he gives his annual state-of-the-nation speech Wednesday.

With tens of thousands of Russian troops massed near the border with Ukraine, everyone will be looking for clues to what Mr. Putin intends to do with that invasion-sized force. Amid escalating tensions with the West – including a series of recent tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions – leaders around the world will be wondering whether Mr. Putin wants to escalate or defuse that situation.

There are also wild rumours that Mr. Putin may make some kind of announcement regarding neighbouring Belarus, where his presidential ally Alexander Lukashenko – facing months of mass protests against his rule – said over the weekend that he had made the most important decision of his political career, one he needs to discuss with Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin is believed to desire the unification of Russia and Belarus, which like Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.

One group that won’t be watching Mr. Putin’s speech is his country’s biggest opposition movement. Supporters of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny will instead take to the streets Wednesday to protest against the Kremlin’s treatment of Mr. Navalny, who is now in a prison hospital – and said to be close to death – three weeks into a hunger strike aimed at gaining access to his personal doctor.

All those plot lines have fed headlines in Russian state media suggesting the state-of-the-nation address will be the “world’s most important political event.” Expectations were further heightened on Tuesday when Valentina Matvienko, the head of the Federation Council, the upper chamber of Russia’s parliament, said a special meeting would be held on Friday to implement measures that Mr. Putin would announce on Wednesday. Special powers of the Federation Council include calling elections, approving changes to Russia’s borders, approving foreign military action and approving presidential decrees of a state of emergency or martial law.

But no one outside the Kremlin can profess to know what Mr. Putin will say until he starts to speak.

“It’s very difficult to predict. There could be some surprises, or it might really be nothing,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “We don’t know what happens in the head of Putin.”

One of the surprises, Ms. Stanovaya suspects, may be the deployment of more Russian troops into the Donbass region of Ukraine, part of which is currently under the control of Kremlin-backed separatists. While Ukraine would see such a move as an expanded invasion, Mr. Putin might claim the troops are needed as “peacekeepers” after a surge in fighting this year between the Ukrainian army and the separatist fighters.

Alarm bells have been ringing for weeks over the size of Russia’s military buildup along its western border with Ukraine, as well as in the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed in 2014. On Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said there would soon be 120,000 Russian soldiers near his country’s borders. The Russian air force and navy, meanwhile, reported holding “combat readiness” drills near Crimea on Tuesday.

Mykola Bielieskov, a Kyiv-based military analyst, said Russia was logistically still 10 or 15 days away from being ready to use the force it had amassed. He said the Ukrainian assessment was that the buildup was an exercise in “coercive diplomacy” – aimed as much at U.S. President Joe Biden as at Ukraine – rather than a preparation for all-out war.

“They want us to see. They want the Ukrainians, and especially the Americans, to see them [the Russian forces],” Mr. Bielieskov said. “The balance of power between Russia and Ukraine didn’t change, but there has been a change in the White House.”

Relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated rapidly since Mr. Biden replaced Donald Trump as president. Unlike his predecessor, who repeatedly showed deference to Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden has been outspoken about his support for Ukraine and for the pro-democracy movements inside both Russia and Belarus.

Over the weekend, the Czech Republic expelled 18 Russian diplomats after concluding that Russia’s GRU military intelligence service was behind a 2014 explosion at a Czech ammunition depot. Russia replied by expelling 20 Czech diplomats, and Kremlin media have compared the hostile mood in Europe to the Cold War.

The U.S., Ukraine, Poland and Bulgaria have all recently expelled Russian diplomats, and on Monday it was announced that John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, had been recalled to Washington for consultations.

Another potential flashpoint is Belarus, where Mr. Lukashenko’s regime has faced down months of pro-democracy protests with the support of Moscow. On Saturday, Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus since 1994, said he had made “one of the most important decisions of my presidency” but did not say what that decision was.

“For Putin, for the past two to three years, obtaining Belarus into Russian geopolitical control is one of the biggest priorities,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “For Putin, it’s just a question of timing. Is it time today or tomorrow? It’s hard to say.”

Inside Russia, Mr. Putin is facing growing discontent over an economy that shrank 3.1 per cent last year, largely because of the pandemic. More than 460,000 people have signed up online to join what could be some of the biggest protests the country has ever seen.

“It’s an emergency thing,” Vladimir Ashurkov, a close friend of Mr. Navalny’s, said of the snap decision to hold a protest Wednesday. “The situation escalated, so we did what we had to do.”

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