March 5, 2018
If Xi Jinping is the world’s most powerful man, conventional wisdom puts Vladimir Putin a close second. He’s made his own bare-chested virility synonymous with a resurgent Russia. Mr. Putin seems to be playing on every chessboard, from what Russia calls its “near abroad” to the Middle East, from Europe to America.
When it comes to sowing doubt about democracy and fueling dissension among Americans, Mr. Putin is eating our lunch. And Russia retains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, with new weapons in the works that Mr. Putin saw fit to brag about during last week’s state of the nation speech — even if his rhetoric far outpaced their technical reality.
But elsewhere, Russia’s adventurism is feeding a growing, gnawing case of indigestion. And it masks a deep-set rot in Russia itself. Mr. Putin is a masterful painter of facades. But his Russian village looks increasingly less Putin and increasingly more Potemkin.
Let’s start with Syria. It’s true that Moscow’s in extremis intervention prevented the collapse of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, and preserved Russia’s sole foothold in the Middle East. But having put his finger in the dyke, Mr. Putin can’t remove it or Mr. Assad will drown. So Russia is stuck in the middle of multiple conflicts it cannot control — between the Assad regime and the rebels; between Turkey and the Kurds; between American-led coalition forces and the Islamic State; between Israel, Syria and Iran; between Sunni and Shiite. This Rubik’s cube of conflicting interests makes partners on one front adversaries on another…