Not a King, but the King of Beggars

A week ago I wrote that "if Putin is the world's puppet master he's not doing very well. Russia's economy has been in crisis since 2014, with no end in sight. The Kremlin has been in the doldrums for two reasons: the continued decline in oil prices and economic sanctions imposed on Moscow for its incursions into Ukraine."

Those trends continued and indeed worsened in 2017.  Despite predictions the Trump administration was eating out of Putin's hand the evidence was he would soon have his hand out unless oil prices rose and the US military buildup eased. "It is reasonable to suppose that puppetmaster Putin would prefer 1) less US oil production; 2) lower American defense spending; 3) a free hand in Syria; 4) lifting of sanctions," I wrote "but there is precious little evidence he is getting any of it. On the contrary Putin is doomed if current trends continue."

Today the headlines were dominated by news of unrest in Russia.  "Hundreds of people were arrested across Russia on Sunday as protests erupted against corruption there, according to multiple reports," reported Politico.  Although Putin may well survive the opposition's efforts to unseat him  -- what relief is in sight?  Public discontent probably reflects elite discontent that in turn is a reflection of a declining GDP.

The narrative that Russia -- a country with an economy smaller than Italy -- smaller than New York State's -- will  take over the world is less compelling than than the alternative thesis: that the tide of chaos is rising across the planet.  With the European Union weakening, the Middle East perceptibly falling apart  and African and Latin America their same old selves the danger is less that some rival empire will conquer the world than that power vacuums will spread entropy all over the planet.

If Russian unrest should get worse the danger -- as with North Korea -- is not that it will mount a land invasion of its neighbors but whether the Kremlin's arsenal can remain secure in the face of internal dissension.  Only a few weeks ago the Center for Strategic and International Studies argued it was time to build up missile defenses against limited attacks from Russia and China, that "we need to break the taboo on discussing any kind of missile defense against great powers" not because the calculus of central nuclear war has fundamentally changed but because the assumption of a world dominated by great powers may no longer be valid.

Imagine a scenario where Kim Jong Un is overthrown, or the Syrian war spreads to its neighbors.  Consider a situation where Erdogan's Turkey is riven or Putin's Russia is plunged into contention.  None of these is out of the question.  Then America would be faced not with the challenge of an organized rival, but with a global and amorphous tide of disorder.  The Obama administration's strategy of reset with Russia, grand bargains with Muslim nations, a stable partnership with the European union presumed a world that is not guaranteed to be there.