Last Man Standing

LONDON – Much of modern geopolitics seems to be following the plot from Game of Thrones, with many countries under so much political and economic stress that their only hope is that their rivals collapse before they do. So their governments cling to power while exploiting rivals’ internal weaknesses.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the prime example. His recent campaigns in Syria and Ukraine may look like the actions of a geopolitical buccaneer. But the root of his adventurism is domestic weakness. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, was in large part an attempt to provide Putin’s regime with renewed legitimacy following a winter of discontent, during which demonstrators took to the streets to protest his return to the presidency.

Rival powers – most notably the United States and the European Union – have introduced sanctions in the hope of widening cracks in the Russian elite, exploiting the fact that Putin has not diversified his economy away from oil and gas. Putin, in turn, is hoping that Russia’s economy stays afloat long enough for Ukraine to collapse. To hasten that process, the Kremlin has left no lever of destabilization unpulled: It has launched military incursions, manipulated Ukraine’s politics, used energy blackmail, and engaged in information warfare.

Putin believes that the EU suffers from the same flaws as the former Soviet Union, regarding it as a utopian, multinational project that will crumble under the weight of its contradictions. Here, too, the Kremlin has done its best to help the process along, by supporting far-right parties throughout the EU. Putin seems to be hoping that if the United Kingdom votes for “Brexit” and the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is elected President of France, the EU will lose its ability to maintain the sanctions.