At the moment, our preoccupation is President Vladimir Putin's next move outside Russia. Will he invade eastern Ukraine? Will he move into Moldova? But even more worrisome is what Putin may have in mind for Russia itself.

The Russian president did not engineer the Ukrainian crisis, but he has exploited it to begin forging something far more dangerous than land grabs - a political arrangement that could secure his rule of Russia for life. The annexation of Crimea has fueled nationalist hysteria and paranoia within Russia, and Putin has ridden that wave, reshaping his government into one far more repressive, ideologically driven, messianic and founded on a revisionist view of history that is explicitly anti-West and anti-American.

Putin heralded this in an extraordinarily frank and disturbing televised speech on March 18 to the Russian political elite. In it, he lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union, saying that "after the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability." Since then, he said, the West - and the United States in particular - have preferred not to be "guided by international law in their practical policies but by the rule of the gun" and have been seeking to "drive Russia into the corner."

This hostility toward the West is not simply expedient and tactical. Rather, it has become Putin's raison d'etre, shaping his decisions and offering a convenient justification for greater repression. Ultimately, he may use it to justify assumption of a lifelong office as Father of the Nation, Protector of all Russians and Defender of the Motherland. Anyone who opposes him is, in Putin's words, part of the "fifth column" and a "traitor of the nation."

The perils of such a future for Russia are many and obvious. Not least among them is that it would mark a return to a personality-driven dictatorship. The many ovations and chants that greeted Putin's Kremlin appearance March 18 suggested a new cult of personality that is already enormous and might one day rival even that of Josef Stalin.

What makes this development not only alarming but potentially apocalyptic is the fact that Putin's unpredictable and clearly aggressive regime has access to 1,700 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on more than 400 land- and submarine-based long-range strategic missiles. And, in an ongoing $770 billion, 10-year rearmament and modernization program, Russia has heightened the threat of those weapons with an upgraded intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying as many as 10 warheads, each of them independently targeted and designed explicitly to evade U.S. missile defenses.

Never before has a dictator with such a cult of personality had access to these kinds of weapons. Stalin, as brutal as he was, did not have missiles. Even the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev had only short-range missiles. (It was his move to place them close enough to reach the United States that provoked the Cuban missile crisis.)

Mao Zedong had a bomb but no missiles. Leonid Brezhnev had long-range missiles, but his was definitely a collective leadership regime, overseen by the generally risk-averse Politburo. In North Korea today, Kim Jong Un is certainly a totalitarian leader with a godlike cult of personality, but he has only a handful of ICBMs whose reliability are still uncertain. China is busily developing its long-range delivery vehicles, but its leader, at least for now, is selected - and largely controlled - by the elite.

Since Western democracies have never confronted an aggressive personality-driven autocracy armed with strategic nuclear warheads, a response must be quickly improvised. The obvious first measure should be to commit resources to building a far more formidable strategic missile defense. This effort is doubly urgent because of a concerted effort on Moscow's part to modernize its strategic missile forces. Another important move will be to increase the cost of the Putin dictatorship to Russia through sanctions and other policies.

But the most important thing right now is awareness. The U.S. and its allies must attune themselves to the distinct and highly malignant change in the Russian leadership, which has sharply escalated the danger Russia presents to the world.

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991." He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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