Putin is in a catch 22. He fears a maidan revolt on red square, he would have nowhere to run when the Russians come and want questions answered, questions pertaining especially to his contact with Russia’s corrupt oligarchy. Questions that would expand to his orders during the the 2nd Chechen war, the Georgian war and the current war in Ukraine where Russian soldiers disappear in unmarked graves. That fear is making him act today, having NATO on his doorstep complicates matters but it’s nothing new, NATO is a red herring: Putin well knows that NATO is far too diverse and rational to be a threat and nuclear weapons offer all the security Russia needs.
Putin feels he must act in order to demonstrate his will to his own people, he’s willing to go far to hold onto power even if that means vast financial losses, pariah status and long term deep economic slump. But such pain doesn’t help him with middle class Russians who know there was an alternative.
It is a desperate gamble, Russia can play games in countries where a Russian minority offers an excuse but Russia cannot openly invade and hold large amounts of territory against a restless European population and an alienated outside world. For that it doesn’t have the demographics, the economy nor the domestic willingness. The attempt to cast NATO as an enemy falls flat, NATO countries are Russia’s main trade partners and vital to Russia’s economy. It may fool some for some time but it cannot last.
And so Putin doesn’t sleep well, how can he remain Tzar and bend the will of the Russians to his personal interests given the circumstances?