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Trying to read the mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin is a risky business any time, and so it is amid the mounting crisis over Ukraine.

Yet in trying to figure out why Mr. Putin is laying the groundwork for a move on Ukraine, and doing so now, a few crucial factors emerge from the fog. He wants to move now because he sees Ukraine slipping from his grasp. And the reasons he may think he’s free to act actually lie in three other countries: the U.S., Germany and China.

If this combination of forces is, in fact, helping drive Mr. Putin, they also demonstrate why dissuading him is proving difficult. He may feel both a sense of urgency, and a fleeting moment of opportunity.

The motivation starts within Ukraine itself. It is moving toward the West, in no small measure because of Mr. Putin’s own thuggish behavior. His invasion of Crimea, threats and bullying all have produced the opposite of what Mr. Putin intended. He now feels a need to reverse the anti-Russian, pro-Western sentiment that he fostered if Ukraine is to end up where Mr. Putin thinks it belongs, in Russia’s orbit.

“He sees this inexorable strengthening of ties between the West and Ukraine," says Robert Gates, former defense secretary and head of central intelligence and a longtime Russia analyst. “The U.S. and other Europeans are providing weapons and training. [Ukraine] may not be members of NATO, but that security relationship is getting stronger by the day. From his point of view there is some urgency to act in Ukraine before developments there become irreversible."

So that’s reason to act. But why should Mr. Putin think he could get away with attacking the sovereignty of a neighbor?

Start with how he likely sees the U.S. Americans are deeply divided among themselves, with some questioning the validity of the very elections that form the core of democracy. That suggests that the power of the U.S. to act decisively is diminished by internal squabbling, and that the power of its democratic model is similarly diminished.

Meantime, three straight American presidents—Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden—have demonstrated, through word and deed, that Americans are tired of engagements abroad, particularly military engagements. The prospect that the U.S. might mount a military response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine is dim—and must have been made even more dim in Mr. Putin’s mind by the ugly withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan last year.

“It’s hard to avoid the thought that Biden’s Afghanistan fiasco suggested to Putin that this is a guy who can be pushed around," says Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert and former national-security official who now teaches at Columbia University. Mr. Putin may be wrong about that, but it’s easy to see how he might draw that conclusion.

At the same time, Germany is giving Mr. Putin reason to doubt that the West can really unite in response to a Russian invasion. Germany’s decision to close all of its nuclear reactors by the end of 2022 has made it more dependent than ever on Russian energy imports, meaning Mr. Putin’s leverage over Berlin may be at its peak.

German officials are talking tough about standing with Ukraine, but their actions strike a different tone. When tiny Estonia—with a population of just over one million, compared with 83 million in Germany and 144 million in Russia—wanted to send weapons to Ukraine in a show of solidarity, Germany refused to issue permits for the export of German-made weapons.

Meantime, Mr. Putin’s warming relationship with China gives him reason to think Beijing will be there to help him overcome whatever Western economic sanctions are put in place after an incursion into Ukraine. Mr. Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping have made a show of their friendship in recent months, and Mr. Putin will be a high-profile guest at the coming Beijing Winter Olympics.

China and Russia have a shared interest in making the U.S. look weak, and Russian success in Ukraine might prove to be a trial run for a Chinese move on Taiwan. Mr. Gates says he would be astonished if there haven’t been conversations about China offering assistance to offset Western economic sanctions against Russia.

Such calculations could prove to be miscalculations, of course; already Russian provocations are compelling Western allies to beef up their troop presence around Russia, which has to be the opposite of what Mr. Putin wants.

“Putin may still be making a really big mistake, guaranteeing that the rest of his time in power, the rest of Russia’s fossil-fuel ascendancy, the rest of his attempt to build influence in the post-Soviet space will all be far more troubled than they have to be," says Mr. Sestanovich. Still, if Mr. Putin is looking for reasons to think he can get away with something, they are laid out before him.

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