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Vladimir Putin was reportedly so angered when President Joe Biden called him a "killer" in his first sit-down interview after taking office, the Russian president left his quarantine, got a COVID vaccination and moved 28,000 Russian troops to the border with Ukraine.
"It was really a shock. And it changed his behavior a lot," argues Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at Norway’s International Peace Research Institute in Oslo.
Russian Bear bombers went into action, forcing NATO to scramble 10 jets to intercept the Russian warplanes flying over the North Atlantic Ocean last week, a rare show of force near the Arctic. On Monday, Putin quietly changed Russia’s constitution to allow him to stay in power until 2036. He would be 83 years old.
"Bluffing comes naturally to [Putin]. He is much more of a manipulator than he is a warrior," says Baev, in an interview with Fox News. "War is always a risk, always a gamble. So I think he is much more about showing off, about posturing, about kind of showing muscle than about going for the real thing," according to Baev, author of the Jamestown Foundation report War Scare is Putin’s Natural Element. "He is much more about gesturing, about signaling, messaging and all sorts of things than about starting a real war."
Facing sagging popularity at home, Putin has returned to a "hybrid war" with the U.S. "President Putin would love to see Russian-U.S. relations reduced to a mano-a-mano battle between him and President Biden," according to Timothy Frye, author of the new book "Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia."
By testing the American and NATO response time with hypersonic weapons tests in the Arctic, a military build-up on the border with Ukraine and an ongoing crackdown on supporters of his main political opponent Alexei Navalny, now jailed and on a hunger strike, "Vlad the Terrible" is signaling he is back and goading the White House to respond.
"The Russian government is responsible for his health and well-being. We will continue to monitor the situation closely," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
Frye urges the Biden administration not to play Putin’s game: "Putin has come to increasingly rely on repression of his political opponents, and I take that as a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength," Frye said in an interview with Fox News. "Theres already a lot of Putin fatigue in the country. Hes run the country for 20 years, and while he remains broadly popular, I think there is a desire within Russia, many elements of Russian society for political change."
"There is an arms race. There is competition with the new weapons system, including hypersonic, including nuclear, but again, the Russian economy is not the Soviet economy. Arms race is a very hard thing to sustain, particularly when you are competing with United States," Baev argues. "I dont think Putin has a long term horizon. He is much more about today and tomorrow and may be a little bit about the day after than about a sustainable arms race."
New satellite photos of expanding Russian military bases and weapons tests are raising fears of another "Cold War" buildup and a possible arms race in the Arctic. Allies say nuclear tests could devastate the delicate ecosystem. A series of recent weapons tests by Moscow and the alarming development of a stealth nuclear-powered megaton torpedo, that could devastate cities along the U.S. East Coast with radioactive tsunamis, has quickly gained the attention of the U.S. military.