CNN  — 

Vladimir Putin is doing it again. He’s got Washington in a frenzy. Everyone’s got a theory about what the Russian president plans for Ukraine. But no one really knows. Maybe he doesn’t himself.

While Americans across the country fret about high inflation and daily disruptions from the pandemic, Putin has once again forced a country many American foreign policy officials view as a creaking superpower in inexorable decline to center stage in the US capital.

Russia is on everybody’s lips in DC – just as it was in 2016 when Putin created a political hall of mirrors in the US, distorting reality and truth with an election meddling operation that is still delivering discord and ripping the country’s divides ever deeper.

For President Joe Biden, foreign policy has come full circle. He first arrived in Washington in the Cold War deep freeze. Half a century later, he finds himself wrestling with a Russian counterpart who never regarded the superpower standoff as resolved.

Their confrontation over Ukraine might seem an arcane tussle of wills. But Putin is holding the independent democracy that used to be part of the Soviet Union hostage to try to force Biden to agree to pull NATO troops out of Moscow’s former orbit in eastern Europe. Their duel is about whether people can chose their own leaders and political systems and whether big nations can get away with invading smaller ones; whether democracy and international rules can prevail; and whether market economies can freely function or must exist under the heavy hand of the state or oligarchs.

Once again, as was the case late in the 20th century, members of Congress are huddled in secret briefings with US spy agencies trying to work out what the Kremlin is up to. But in this modern-day showdown, Putin has turned Republicans on Republicans as a split emerges between traditional hawks and pro-Trump populists. He’s forced the White House to pay attention to him by circling independent, western-leaning Ukraine with troops. He’s opened diplomatic tracks to try to pry NATO allies apart. His pressure last week caused a public meltdown between the US and Ukrainian governments over whether the Russians plan to invade. Putin has won adoring coverage in US conservative media – an achievement that would have been unthinkable for any Soviet leader. And rattled nerves over Russia even spilled over into a row between the State Department and its press corps Thursday, which was bizarrely accused of taking solace in Russian propaganda.

At any given moment, in the Russian leader’s reign of confusion, it’s hard to evaluate whether he’s blinking under Western pressure, doubling down by adding to his garrison or simply at a loss what to do himself with no clear endgame in sight to the showdown.

Putin pressed some more American buttons on Friday when he met the rising foe that Washington really wants to focus on – President Xi Jinping of China. He’s sure to spook political analysts with hints of a Beijing-Moscow axis.

Xi and Putin vowed to deepen their strategic coordination, according to a readout of the exchange between the two leaders by Chinese state media Xinhua News on Friday.

If Putin’s aim with his build up opposite Ukraine is to tie the West in knots, to have everyone obsessing over Russia – whether he ends up invading the ex-Soviet state or not – it’s worked. In Washington on Thursday, the focus initially was on a US raid in Syria overnight that had led to the death of the leader of ISIS. But inexorably, the focus was dragged back to speculation over Putin’s intentions. No one can agree on what Russia is going to do, when it might do it, or what the US should do in response. And that might be exactly the point of Putin’s game.

Washington has no idea what Putin might do next

After previously saying that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “imminent,” the US has stopped using that word since the invasion hasn’t come. That’s a small victory for the Russian leader, in the phony war of attrition that might or might not precede an invasion, which could last weeks or months. As an example of the confusion that Putin has sown on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are emerging from briefings after hearing the same classified information with differing interpretations of what might happen next.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it was a “near certainty” that Putin would invade Ukraine. But House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith disagreed. The Washington state Democrat told CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday: “I don’t think we know that yet.” And Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, suggested that nobody “knows whether Putin has made the ultimate decision.”

The lack of cohesion about Putin’s motives is beginning to be reflected in disputes about how the US should respond – another success for the Russian leader’s long-term push to stir angst that tarnishes Western democracy. Traditional national security Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have been pushing Biden to take a tougher stand against Russia for weeks and have welcomed his decision to dispatch troops to Europe. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, whom ex-President Barack Obama mocked in a 2012 presidential debate for warning about Moscow’s threat, is suddenly in demand.

“It’s very clearly a sign to our allies that we care about NATO, we care about Europe. And it’s a signal to Putin as well that we care about Europe and that we care about our allies as we do,” Romney said, backing Biden’s troop deployments.

But there are clear signs that the anti-NATO, “America first,” sentiment that is a hangover from the Trump administration is a growing force in the Republican Party. Indiana Sen. Mike Braun said that he is against sending more troops to Europe.

“I think that’s a scrambling feature that we’re doing late in the game,” Braun said.

It’s also clear that the conservative media’s misinformation implying Biden is sending troops directly to fight Russia instead of defending US interests at home may be starting to soak in. Tennessee Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty, for instance, coined a sentiment often voiced by pro-Trump opinion hosts. He said the Biden administration should send “troops to our southern border.” And Kansas Republican Sen. Roger Marshall said he didn’t “want boots on the ground.”

“Having a son that’s an enlisted man in the Army myself, it’s a big deal. I think economically, we need to know, does the European Union have any moxie? … They need to be leading on this. I think we need to be a participant, but it just feels like we’re escalating the situation.”

European diplomats might be advised to listen carefully to such senators, a rising block in the party that once celebrated its greatest Cold Warrior, President Ronald Reagan, for orchestrating victory over the Soviet Union. Any weakening of the transatlantic alliance would be a huge win for Putin.

The world looks different in Moscow

To Western eyes, Putin’s behavior often seems self-defeating and illogical. It looks like he’s making it up as he goes along. Even if that’s the case, it makes him harder to read. One view right now is that the Russian position is eroding, that Putin has backed into a corner with more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, and it will be difficult for him to climb down and save face.

If he invades, it’s hard for Washington to see how Putin could fashion a win for Moscow during what could be a bloody occupation and insurgency. The fierce punishments that the West is threatening to clamp on Russia’s economy also seem like a steep price to pay. Putin’s wider strategic dance seems to make little sense either. After all, his demands that NATO withdraw troops and arms from Eastern Europe caused Biden to call his bluff this week by ordering 3,000 troops to Germany, Romania and Poland.

But the logic of Putin’s worldview, rooted in a desire to restore respect, attention and status to Russia 30 years after the end of the Cold War, operates in a different universe from that of the West. The world looks different from Moscow. One theory in Washington is that Putin is now so isolated inside his own regime that’s he’s not getting good outside advice. But he’s keeping the West on edge – and that may be a goal in itself.

There is some hope that Putin’s willingness to talk is a sign he’s not serious about an invasion – he just spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance. But at the same time, Biden’s dispatch of troops to defend NATO allies is already being spun in Moscow as proof of Putin’s argument that the West is threatening Russia’s borders and security. Such arguments can be used to build legitimacy for his own strongman rule. The Russian leader often uses nationalism to prop up a government in perpetuity that relies on oppression, crushing media freedoms and locking up dissidents. And signs of political acrimony in the US, which Putin is by now an expert at whipping up, play into Russian notions that a state that prizes stability and order over democracy works best.

Worrying signs

With his foreign policy under intense scrutiny following the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden has – a few instances of clumsy messaging aside – performed strongly in the Ukraine crisis, at least in the eyes of those who prefer a US President to behave as a traditional leader of the West.

He has signaled to Putin that NATO’s strategic alliance is inviolate and that its Eastern European members will be defended. He’s offered the Russian leader diplomatic offramps through diplomacy though hasn’t compromised Western strategic principles. And he’s rallied some reluctant allies into signing up for a package of unprecedented sanctions meant to deter Putin from an invasion.

One intriguing feature of this showdown has been the willingness of the US and Britain especially to play the Russians at their own propaganda game. In the latest use of declassified intelligence, Washington on Thursday accused Russia of preparing to “fabricate a pretext for an invasion” by creating a “very graphic propaganda video.” Officials said Moscow could stage an attack against “Russian speaking peoples” in Ukraine in order to justify moving across the border. This is especially worrying because it mirrors arguments that Russia used before annexing Crimea, sovereign Ukrainian territory, in 2014.

Russian denied the allegation. And the problem with the West dealing with intelligence is that such material can be open to doubt and counter-propaganda, since a desire to protect sources and methods means it is difficult to back up such claims with evidence in public.

That issue caused a spat in the State Department briefing on Thursday when spokesman Ned Price said journalists just needed to trust the government – despite decades of previous examples of officials misleading the American people. “If you doubt the credibility of the US government, of the British government, of other governments and want to, you know, find solace in information that the Russians are putting out, that is, that is for you to do,” Price said.

If he achieves nothing else, Putin’s success in setting Americans against themselves might be payoff enough for his thuggery over Ukraine.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated where in Eastern Europe 3,000 troops are being deployed. They have been ordered to Germany, Romania and Poland.