It's often said that Russian history veers between chaos and despotism. Vladimir Putin is the rare Kremlin leader to span both. His rough hand brought apparent stability after a shaky decade only, at the end of 2014, to midwife his own "great smuta" - the times of troubles dreaded by generations of Russians since the first smuta at the turn of the 17th century, Matthew Kaminski writes in the Wall Street Journal, Censor.NET reports.
Russian President Vladimir Putin rationalized the tax system but did little else to modernize Russia. Those who often speak to him consider him to be in a bad place mentally, erratic and panicked.
Coming into power in 1999, the KGB officer of bland résumé and personality promised to steady a collapsing state. Boris Yeltsin, the man who put the last bullet in the U.S.S.R., was associated with the anarchy, uncertainty and economic catastrophes of post-Soviet troubles. This diminutive new man, then in his late 40s, was a sober contrast in appearance and drinking habits. He was lucky to come on the scene, as if out of nowhere, a year after default and devaluation cleaned the slate for economic revival.
Mr. Putin rationalized the tax system but did little else to modernize Russia. A sudden spike in the oil price, up fivefold in his first decade, covered this failure with billions of petrorubles. The dosh went mainly to those oligarchs of the Yeltsin 1990s who weren't jailed or forced into exile by the new president and to the new Putin-era elites from his hometown of St. Petersburg or KGB days. But the wealth also lifted millions into the middle class, which now comprises, by World Bank estimates, 60% of the population, and whose members seem happy to trade away their political freedoms for vacations on the Turkish Aegean coast. This was the era when Time made Mr. Putin its "Person of the Year" in 2007.
Future historians will debate the moment reality crashed the show. Maybe it was the November evening in 2011 when Mr. Putin turned up at a martial-arts fight in Moscow and got booed out of the ring. No more impromptu public appearances since. For all his inflated popularity ratings he never won a proper election, in contrast to Yeltsin, or the nation's love.
Fear is another matter, but try as he might Mr. Putin is no Stalin. He has lost the Moscow and St. Petersburg "creative classes" of the young and well-travelled who consider him a Soviet relic. They dared come out in tens of thousands in 2011-12 to protest his just-announced plan to stay another five, 10 years, maybe longer. The Kremlin soon enough imprisoned a few troublemakers to send a message to the rest: Shut up or leave. Russians obey, as they are doing now, until they don't.
No longer able to play Putin the Modernizer, in 2014 he became Putin the War President. All of Crimea and half Ukraine's eastern Donbas region end the year under Russian occupation. The desire of Ukrainians for their country to become a Western democracy was a direct threat to the Russian president's model of kleptocratic authoritarianism. This new assertiveness abroad, coupled with the domestic triumph of the Sochi Winter Olympics, seems to have boosted his approval at home, to the extent anyone can measure that accurately in an authoritarian state.
But he also miscalculated. The deaths of 298 civilians on the Malaysia Airlines plane downed over eastern Ukraine by Russia-backed rebels in July steeled German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a confrontation with Mr. Putin. The Europeans, so divided and slow in the immediate aftermath of the Russian attack on Ukraine, eventually found enough mettle to impose serious sanctions and stick together for now. President Obama still refuses to help defend Ukraine, holding out hope for negotiations. But the West as such has exceeded the Kremlin's low expectations.
A plunging oil price has provided the nastiest shock of all. A promising year for Mr. Putin is ending with the ruble and the growth rate tumbling. There is little of value in the Russian economy except for its commodities. As in Soviet days the best and most ambitious people are leaving, chased away as much by stifling mediocrity and the rapaciousness of state functionaries high and low as by outright repression.
The regime that can manipulate public opinion with sophistication is running out of ideas. Or perhaps it's fairer to say that Mr. Putin only has one default move: At every tough moment during his years in power, crack down, primarily at home. Sometimes the Chechens, Georgians or Ukrainians are the collateral damage. Blame for any troubles falls on outsiders. Hilary Clinton was behind the antigovernment protests in Moscow in 2011, the Russian leader said. The U.S. made this year's Ukrainian revolution, he claims. NATO is, he said this month, out to defang the Russian bear.
Before the Battle of Austerlitz, the Austrians and Russians thought Napoleon was weakened, scared and bound to cave. The same things are thought today in Brussels and Washington about Russia's 21st-century Bonaparte. But of course Napoleon won Austerlitz; Waterloo came a decade later.
As Prince Dolgorukov says of Napoleon in "War and Peace," "retreat is so contrary to his whole method of conducting war." So it is to the Putin conduct of politics (and war). He has never shown himself to have a reverse gear: The small kid who grew up in Soviet poverty can't show weakness in a fight. He has never looked for accommodation or de-escalation or compromise, to use any of the solutions offered by some European leaders or White House officials. They should be thinking about how to get him to his Waterloo as soon as possible.
His current troubles have convinced people who speak to him often that Mr. Putin is in a bad place mentally, erratic and panicked. He inflicted traumas on his own people and neighbors and must fear the next one could mean his end. There will be an end to this ruler in 2015 or later. It will surely be ugly.