He is ridiculed for his mendacity and ostracised by his peers. He presides over a free-falling currency and a rapidly shrinking economy. International sanctions stop his kleptocratic friends from holidaying in their ill-gotten Mediterranean villas. Judged against the objectives Vladimir Putin purported to set on inheriting Russia’s presidency 15 years ago—prosperity, the rule of law, westward integration—regarding him as a success might seem bleakly comical.
But those are no longer his goals, if they ever really were. Look at the world from his perspective, and Mr Putin is winning. For all his enemies’ machinations, he remains the Kremlin’s undisputed master. He has a throttlehold on Ukraine, a grip this week’s brittle agreement in Minsk has not eased. Domesticating Ukraine through his routine tactics of threats and bribery was his first preference, but the invasion has had side benefits. It has demonstrated the costs of insubordination to Russians; and, since he thinks Ukraine’s government is merely a puppet of the West (the supposed will of its people being, to his ultracynical mind, merely a cover for Western intrigues), the conflict has usefully shown who is boss in Russia’s backyard. Best of all, it has sown discord among Mr Putin’s adversaries: among Europeans, and between them and America.
His overarching aim is to divide and neuter that alliance, fracture its collective approach to security, and resist and roll back its advances. From his tantrums over the Middle East to his invasion of Georgia and multiple misadventures in Ukraine, Mr Putin has sometimes seemed to stumble into accidental disputes with the West, driven by a paranoid fear of encirclement. In hindsight it seems that, given his outlook, confrontation may have been inevitable. Either way, the contest he insists on can no longer be dodged. It did not begin in poor Ukraine and will not end there. Prevailing will require far more resolve than Western leaders have so far mustered.
The first task for the West is to recognise the problem. Barack Obama has blithely regarded Russia as an awkward regional power, prone to post-imperial spasms but essentially declining. Historians will be amazed that, with Ukraine aflame, the West was still debating whether to eject Russia from the G8. To paraphrase Trotsky, Western leaders may not have been interested in Mr Putin, but Mr Putin was interested in them.
The next step is to craft a response as supple as the onslaught. Part of the trouble is that Mr Putin plays by different rules; indeed, for him, there are no inviolable rules, nor universal values, nor even cast-iron facts (such as who shot down flight MH17). There are only interests. His Russia has graduated from harassing ambassadors and assassinating critics to invasions. This is one of his assets: a readiness to stoop to methods the West cannot emulate without sullying itself.
Picture: HieronimusDietrich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons