After President Biden called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia “a crazy son of a bitch” this week, the Kremlin was quick to issue harsh condemnation.

But Putin has fully embraced the image of an unpredictable strongman willing to escalate his conflict with the West after two years of full-scale war.

At home, the Kremlin is maintaining a mystery about the circumstances of last week’s death of Aleksei A. Navalny, preventing the opposition leader’s family from recovering his body.

In Ukraine, Putin is pressuring his army to maintain his brutal offensive, boasting on television that he stayed up all night as the town of Avdiivka fell to Russian forces.

And in outer space, U.S. officials warn, Russia may be planning to put a nuclear weapon into orbit, aboard a satellite, which would violate one of the last arms control treaties.

In power since 1999, Putin, 71, is set to extend his mandate until 2030 in elections approved in Russia next month. As the vote approaches, he is nurturing his increasingly open conception of himself as a history-making leader who continues the legacy of previous rulers who were willing to sacrifice untold numbers of lives to build a more Russian state. strong.

But Putin also faces headwinds: a still-determined Ukrainian resistance, a Western alliance that largely remains united, and murmurs of discontent in the Russian public. The question is whether Putin, while rejoicing in leading a “thousand-year eternal Russia,” can avoid the internal turmoil that has also been a hallmark of the country’s history.

“Putin lives in eternity,” said Boris B. Nadezhdin, a pacifist politician who tried to mount a presidential bid to challenge Putin but was excluded from the March election. Listing rulers dating back to the 9th century, he added of Putin: “It is clear that he is thinking of himself alongside Oleg the Wise, Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible and perhaps Stalin.”

Nadezhdin, who worked in the Russian government and served in Parliament, insisted in a video interview this week that Putin’s grip on power is weaker than it appears. The security, stability and greater prosperity that were long Putin’s appeal after the chaos of the 1990s are diminishing, Nadezhdin said; “This regime,” he continued, “is historically condemned.”

Indeed, although Putin has worked hard to paint a picture of Russia as an invincible state, he has repeatedly been caught off guard. There was the Kremlin’s stunning intelligence failure two years ago, when Putin hoped that Russian troops would be welcomed as liberators and that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government would quickly collapse.

There was the 24-hour uprising that took place last summer, when Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, long considered a close ally of Putin, brought Russia to the brink of civil war.

And, despite a crackdown on dissent that some analysts describe as fiercer than that of the late Soviet Union, Russians still face arrests to show their dissent.

A group of women has continued to organize small protests demanding that their mobilized children and husbands return home; people laid flowers in memory of Navalny in dozens of Russian cities; and Nadezhdin was able to submit more than 100,000 signatures last month in his bid to appear on the presidential ballot with an anti-war message.

On Wednesday, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the federal election committee’s ruling to keep Nadezhdin out of the polls. It was a sign that Putin, although he has allowed liberal candidates to run against him in past elections as a show of pluralism, is not taking any chances this time.

Instead, the Kremlin seems focused on using the presidential elections, scheduled for March 15-17, as a show of public support for Putin’s government… and his invasion.

Next Thursday, Putin will set the stage with his annual State of the Union address, a televised event in which the president presides over hundreds of top officials who show their loyalty to their leader.

Konstantin Remchukov, editor of a Moscow newspaper close to the Kremlin, said being able to present a landslide election victory as proof of public support for the war appeared to be Putin’s main goal for the March elections.

“The elections – and Vladimir Putin’s high result in these elections – are aimed at electorally legitimizing Putin’s policies, including the SVO,” Remchukov said in a telephone interview, using the Russian initials for “special military operation,” the term that the Kremlin uses for war. “If he gets, say, 75 to 80 percent of the vote, then this will mean that people are giving their approval to this policy.”

Presenting the invasion as if it had broad public support also allows the Kremlin to justify its crackdown on dissent.

Images of masked security service officers detaining war critics have become a common sight on Russian television. On Tuesday, Russia’s national security service, known as the FSB, announced it had arrested a 33-year-old visiting Russian-American woman on suspicion of treason.

His alleged crime: donating about $50 to a Ukrainian charity. He faces 20 years in prison.

News of that arrest came just four days after the death of Navalny, who spent more than three years in prison, including about 300 days in solitary “punishment” cells. It is still unknown how Navalny died in an Arctic prison known as Polar Wolf; His spokeswoman said Thursday that authorities said he died of natural causes.

On Thursday, Navalny’s mother said authorities were “blackmailing” her into agreeing to a “secret funeral” for her son.

“With the death of Navalny, the Russian regime has surpassed the Soviet regime in its cruelty and cynicism,” wrote Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. He maintained that Putin’s government has gone from “a dictatorship of deception to a dictatorship of fear, and after the outbreak of war to an absolute dictatorship of terror.”

But Putin, in public, steers clear of the machinery of repression he oversees. While a spokesperson said the president had been informed of Navalny’s death, Putin himself has not commented on the matter.

Instead, Putin revealed this week that he stayed up late the night after Navalny died consumed by something else: the war in Ukraine.

In a televised meeting with his Defense Minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, Putin described being informed in real time about the Russian advance on Avdiivka until 4 a.m. last Saturday. At 11 a.m., Shoigu and Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff, returned to again brief the Russian leader about Ukraine’s hasty withdrawal from the strategically important city, Putin said.

Shoigu said the military had carried out the president’s order to install loudspeakers on Ukraine’s southern front to convince soldiers to surrender. The message was aimed at showing Putin as a tireless leader, in tune with all the details of the war.

At the meeting, Putin dismissed White House concerns about possible Russian plans to put a nuclear weapon into orbit this year. Instead, he said, what they “should really fear” is the new generation of Russian nuclear weapons aimed at ground targets.

On Thursday, Putin took a further step to remind the world of Russia’s arsenal, taking a 30-minute flight in a nuclear-capable bomber. But hours later, when asked about Biden’s “crazy son of a bitch” comments that the Kremlin spokesman had earlier condemned, Putin got playful. — a reminder of the former KGB agent’s obsession with sowing confusion.

Using a nickname for Vladimir, Putin said of Biden: “He can’t say, ‘Volodya, good boy.’”

By Sam