There are at least two reasons for Putin to be thinking about similar big and bold actions today. One is strategic and abiding: glory for himself and his Russia, the two by now entwined in his mind. The other motive is tactical: He is working toward a lifetime presidencya six-year term in 2024, at 72, and perhaps another in 2030 in a country where the economy and incomes have stagnated for over a decade and the still-raging Covid-19 pandemic has left deep scars. Whats more, the arrest of pro-democracy leader Alexei Navalny has ignited waves of protest rallies in over 100 Russian cities for the first time since anti-Putin demonstrations in the winter of 2011-12.

The same factorsdeeply held beliefs and perceptions, bleak economic prospects, and the exigencies of his regimes survivaloverlapped in 2012 and 2013. In the most fateful choice of his political life, Putin used the return of Crimea to replace economic progress and income growth as the keystone of his popularity, and thus his regimes legitimacy. It was a bold and brilliant political maneuver. Lev Gudkov, the director of Russias only independent polling firm, Levada Center, has called Putins new claim to legitimacy patriotic mobilization. Another leading Russian political sociologist, Igor Klyamkin, labeled this choice militarized patriotism in peacetime.

And it worked. Putins monthly approval rating catapulted from an average of 65 percent in 2012 and 2013 to 81 percent from 2014 to 2018. Russian experts called it the Crimean consensus an emotional upswing resulting in the consent of the Russians to bear privations in exchange for imperial grandeur.

We tend to repeat what worked. Political scientists call it path-dependence. Finding himself now in what could be a tighter bind, politically and economically, than in 2012-13 and with the Crimean consensus eroding, Putin may reach for that which has done very well by him in the past: short victorious wars.

Virtually unknown when he was appointed prime minister in August 1999, Putins approval shot up to around 80 percent in the first months of 2000 after he launched what became Russias second war in Chechnya. His highest rating ever88 percent in September 2008 followed a five-day war against Georgia. (At the time, he was technically prime minister, having installed Dmitri Medvedev as a placeholder president, but everyone knew who was calling the shots.) The public interpretation was: This is the beginning of World War III and we are winning, commented Levada principal Alexei Levinson. It does not matter what exactly we have conquered. The most important thing is we have shown THEM!

Should Putin want to launch another short, victorious war, there is no shortage of potential targets. At least five neighboring countries are obvious candidates. Three of themGeorgia, Moldova and Ukraineare the sites of frozen conflicts that can be easily thawed by Russian troops or their proxies inside those countries or on their borders. Another, Belarus, is half of a formal Union State with Russia. The fifth, Kazakhstan, has more ethnic Russians3.5 millionthan any post-Soviet state except Ukraine, with most conveniently living in the six northern provinces that border Russia. Once the Taliban takes over Afghanistan and starts expanding into the Central Asian states, an Anschluss could be portrayed as the defense of Kazakhstans ethnic Russians.

But these five potential wars would not quite measure up to Putins ambition for big ideas, or to his self-imposed mission to restore and avenge.

That criteria would be met by a fast and victorious poke at NATOs eastern flank, the member states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Could there be a more satisfying coda to Putins desire to recover past glory, a more condign retribution for the fall of the beloved Soviet motherland, than a feat that even the mighty Soviet Union could not pull off? A victory over the alliance that embodies the democratic Wests solidarity and its will to defend itself? A be-all and end-all roll of the dice that would expose NATO as a paper tiger?

All the key public perceptions that shaped the Crimean consensusthe plain and lean definition of victory, the aid to oppressed and abused ethnic Russian compatriots, the defense of the motherland and the target countries place in the national consciousnesswould coalesce organically, almost effortlessly.

Although Putin has bragged of getting to Riga and Tallinn in two days, an imperial Reconquista is unlikely. No tanks would need to roll into Riga or Tallinn. Instead, Russia could conduct a tight, Crimea-style hybrid operation by mostly special ops forces and elite paratroopers drawn from Russias Western Military District: three special forces regiments and the air assault division currently deployed close to the Estonian and Latvian borders. A cross-border assaults most likely targets include Estonias Idu-Viru County, which is 74 percent ethnic Russian, and its largest city, Narva (83 percent), and Latvias Latgale region (36 percent Russian) and the city of Daugavpils (48 percent). After one or both of them have been reunited with the motherland, recovering them would mean a war with Russia.

Gen. John Nicholson, former commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, estimated that it would take NATO approximately 90 days to mobilize and build up a conventional force in the Baltics that outnumbers the Russians. By contrast, it took just three weeks from the invasion of Crimea to the referendum and acceptance of Crimea into the Russian FederationPutins euphemisms for the annexation.

Both Brussels and Moscow know that the Baltics are indefensible in the short run. Russia enjoys an absolute supremacy in offensive equipmenttanks, fighter aircraft and rocket artillerythe Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service concluded in a recent report. In the wake of the Crimean operation, NATO sent three battalion-sized battlegroups to the Baltics to embody Article 5 of the NATO Charter: an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all. Known as the Enhanced Forward Presence, they are a tripwire.

Yet a tripwire is effective only in so far as the tripper believes that touching it would cause an explosion, and there are good reasons to suspect that to Putin, the tripwire looks disconnected from the powder keg. The French president has publicly called NATO brain-dead and doubted Americas capability to activate solidarity under Article 5 if something happens at our borders. A few months later, a report by the top-level Munich Security Conference was titled Westlessness?and went on to lament the loss of a common understanding of what it means to be part of the West. For the first time in NATOs 71 years, the paper broached the prospect of the alliances disbanding. When asked if their country should come to the assistance of our NATO ally if Russia got into a serious military conflict with it, majorities in half of the countries polled said no, including France, Spain, Germany and Italy. In the last three, the nos led by more than a 2-to-1 margin.

Of course, Putins image of the West may well be incomplete and impermanent. In the longer run and on truly important issues, democracies are informed by public opinion, which may change foreign policies, often quickly and radically. But Putins perception is not likely to change. Validated by the steady stream of data skewed to please the boss, after 21 years at the top, the memories of past victories have likely spawned an unshakable belief in his genius and never-changing luckand become proof of the ultimate moral faultlessness of his choices.

And then there is Putins largest built-in advantage over democracies: Above all, they want peace. He needs victory.

Big ideas beckon, solemn dreams enchant, a place in history awaits. And more than at any time since hes been in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin may be looking for a triumph.