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Putin, not Merkel, is now the strongman of Europe

Russian actions weakening the EU, challenging NATO

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has outmaneuvered German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The politician who is doing the most to shape Europe these days is not German Chancellor Angela Merkel or any other European Union leader, but Russian President Vladimir Putin.

While many of the EU’s problems — such as the euro and the economic straitjacket it entails — are homegrown, Putin has outmaneuvered everyone to drive a number of wedges into European unity.

All this while the U.S. administration has consistently underestimated him and Russia’s residual ambitions, prematurely writing his political obituary several times even as he remains fully in control in his 16th year as Russian strongman.

The most direct impact has come from last year’s annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine, which has exposed the EU’s lack of resolve and its weak institutions.

As NATO belatedly wakes up the genuine military threat posed by an aggressive Russia, the alliance’s own weaknesses after years of cutting military budgets are on display.

Now the Russian military intervention in Syria is pushing the refugee crisis into a new acute phase that has shredded European solidarity and fatally weakened Merkel’s grip on power in Germany.

In an article last month in Foreign Policy, two research fellows from the Hudson Institute argued that by bombing Syria, Putin has also struck Europe.

“Dividing and disrupting the post-Cold War European security architecture has always been one of Putin’s major strategic goals,” Benjamin Haddad and Hannah Thoburn wrote. “While this may not be the driving force behind his moves in Syria, it certainly has the potential to be one of its side effects.”

This means no longer underestimating Putin’s resolve, no longer taunting him — as Obama has done — with being just a “regional power.”

By putting Russia in position to be involved in any resolution of the Syrian crisis,these analysts say, Putin is forcing the EU to accept the fait accompli in Ukraine and ease up on sanctions.

“Weakened European resolve on sanctions plays right into Putin’s hands,” the authors say. “The removal of sanctions would both aid his reentry into polite international society and remove the heavy pressure on his economy.”

Last month, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat headlined a column “Is Putin Winning?” and said the answer depends on how you define success.