VLADIMIR Putin is threatening to invade Ukraine to "humiliate" Joe Biden after his "killer" jibe as he looks to reassert Russia's "superpower" status, an expert says.
Fears are growing of an all-out war seven years after Russia ruthlessly annexed Crimea in the east of the country using militia groups.
Putin has already gathered 80,000 troops in the region with another 30,000 soldiers set to be deployed.
However, Dr Jade McGlynn, Director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society, says Putin is trying to "test" the new US President while also fostering anti-western sentiment ahead of elections in September.
She told The Sun Online: "Yes, Putin is looking to humiliate Biden, although it's unclear whether he'll be able to. Biden is quite canny, he's very experienced."
Last month, Biden said in a TV interview that Putin was a "killer" with "no soul" prompting the Russian leader to respond with "It takes one to know one."
But according to the academic, the jibe riled the sabre-rattling strongman so much that he is now "flaunting" his weaponry on the Ukrainian border.
"This has to be seen as a test for Biden in particular – by all accounts Putin was very annoyed by the 'killer' comment," she said.
And it seems the Democrat has blinked first after the US cancelled the deployment of two warships to the Black Sea, diplomatic sources in Turkey said.
Last week, Ankara said Washington would send two warships to the Black Sea, in a decision Russia called an unfriendly provocation.
This comes as:
- Putin moves tens of thousands of troops and heavy military equipment to Ukraine border
- Russia sends 15 warships to Ukraine and stages live-fire-drills
- Ukraine's defence minister Andrii Taran claims Russia is preparing to store nukes in Crimea
- Joe Biden gives his 'unwavering support' to Ukraine
- Russian defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says Russian-speaking cities in Ukraine will be occupied in a 'victorious and fleeting blitzkrieg'
Dr McGlynn insists the build-up of troops and arms in eastern Ukraine is Putin "showing off" and doubts the Russian strongman would risk a full-scale conflict.
She said: "Putin would rather manipulate and fool around than go into full-on war.
"War is a big risk. This is more about showing off. And showing Biden 'don't think you can come in and try and speak down to Russia and try and put Russia in its place because Russia is a global power.
“'You need Russia as a global power. We decide global questions.'"
Asked whether Putin would act so aggressively towards Ukraine if Donald Trump was still in the White House, Dr McGlynn said: "I don’t think it would make a huge amount of difference to Russia’s actual aggression towards Ukraine.
"But I do think the demonstrative nature – the flaunting – of the weapons and signalling would have been less likely under Trump."
Putin's popularity and that of his party United Russia has taken a hit in recent months following the failed assassination of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his subsequent arrest.
EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
Dr Jade McGlynn explained how Russia’s aggression towards The Sun Online can be traced back to the Soviet era
She said: "Russia still has a very imperialistic understanding of itself and there is a famous quote that 'Russia cannot be an empire without Ukraine'.
"With Crimea, I lived in Russia during the annexation in 2014, and everybody supported it. There were street parties for weeks.
"There was public pressure at the time on Putin to annex Donbass and Luhansk like he had Crimea.
"In Russia's view, Ukrainians and Russians are essentially the same people until the 1900s they used to call Ukrainians 'little Russians'.
"Russian history, and particularly the east of Ukraine, has been intertwined.
"The 1990s were a very traumatic time for Russians – they lost their empire, almost overnight.
"Putin has been trying to restore that sense of being a great power."
Anti-government protests have sprung up through out the vast nation ahead of September's election.
Dr McGlynn says the domestic turmoil in Russia has influenced the escalation of tensions with Ukraine.
She said: “In Russia, although he's not going anywhere, trust in the state is lagging, the popularity of his party is very low.
“There's real concern about how they are going to fair in the upcoming elections.
“So it's useful if you can have, not a real war, but maybe something like to distract and to build on a very strong sense of anti-westernism, anti-Americanism within Russian society.”
She adds: "When you have elections or these tense moments, the state media goes into full swing reminding the public of all the historical injustices some of which are completely made up.
"What the West has done to Russia and how Putin unlike previous weak leaders stands up to the US and is reasserting the Soviet Union's status – that superpower status."
Meanwhile Russian tanks painted with “invasion stripes" are gathering on Ukraine’s border.
A local in the Russian Astrakhan region, 350 miles from the border, filmed the armoured vehicles with white crosses painted on them.
Military experts have warned that similar white markings were used by the Soviet Army during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. The stripes help identify vehicles to friendly forces.
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