Some analysts believe that Mr. Putin is risking a similar fate. “He will lose Russia because of Ukraine,” said Mr. Fishman, who has just finished a book about why democracy failed to take hold in Russia after the Soviet collapse. Others are less emphatic, especially in the short term, and note the popular signs of support for him inside Russia. Still, they caution that Mr. Putin is uncharacteristically playing a poker game with an unpredictable ending.
“This has been a major failure in Europe’s biggest land war since 1945, and that is a big failure,” said Clifford Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a political risk assessment firm in Washington. “I would not bet futures in Russian political stability over a five-year period.”
While Mr. Putin has publicly emphasized the security threat posed by a westward leaning Ukraine as a reason for going to war, others say his deepest concern is the possible political fallout from living next door to a boisterous democracy with decent economic prospects.
“Putin’s ultimate nightmare is a color revolution in Russia, and that is the lens through which he views people voting in Ukraine,” said Mr. Kupchan. “Because it is so close, culturally, the threat of contagion as he perceives it is even greater.”
Mr. Putin’s successes are legion, especially his entire career arc from an obscure, midlevel intelligence agent — forced to drive a taxi to make ends meet after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc — to becoming one of the longest-running leaders ever to occupy the Kremlin.
Yet in Ukraine, Mr. Putin, 69, has taken repeated missteps.
In 2004, he campaigned personally in the presidential election on behalf of his preferred candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovych, whom he twice congratulated on his win. But widespread accusations of voting fraud sparked a nationalist backlash and the Orange Revolution, with street protests culminating ultimately in the election of Viktor A. Yushchenko (who was poisoned during the campaign) as president in a Western-oriented government.