Vladimir Putin

Russia plays crafty round of global martial arts under Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, during Russia's national Judo team training session in Sochi, in January.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, during Russia's national Judo team training session in Sochi, in January.  (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP))

Britain has often claimed that it punches above its weight in world affairs, an assertion more in question than ever as it leaves the European Union. But in 2016, one country can make the claim without much fear of contradiction: Russia.

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Russia is exerting an outsize influence on events in Europe, the U.S. and the Middle East in ways it hasn’t for decades, and many in the West deplore it. But there is a paradox: By most economic and demographic measures, Russia is a country in decline.

However hurt the country has been by Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine, its economy suffers a more fundamental defect: a continued dependence on raw materials, particularly energy, for which prices have slumped in recent years.

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Russia’s population has been falling and most projections see it sinking further, from 144 million people now to 100 million before the end of the century.

Yet from this position of weakness, Moscow is influencing politics across the West.

Politicians in countries formerly ruled by Moscow take Russian interference for granted. But the still-contested findings of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia hacked computers in an effort to influence the U.S. presidential election are unprecedented.

In France, two Russophile politicians—François Fillon and Marine Le Pen—are the front-runners to compete in next spring’s presidential election. In Brussels on Thursday, Mr. Fillon said while he had no personal links with Russian President Vladimir Putin, “I simply have a lot of respect for Russia.”

Russia holds the world’s largest inventory of nuclear weapons and is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. As such, its global sway never completely disappeared. But under Mr. Putin, Russia is back where many of his countrymen believe it should be: at the top table of global affairs.

How has he done this? One explanation is because he can. Biographers make much of Mr. Putin’s skills at judo, which relies on taking advantage of opponents when they are off-balance.

Western governments are surely off-balance right now. The fallout from the financial crash has created a backlash against political establishments, government institutions and globalization. Russia is seen as amplifying this by influencing politicians, hacking and manipulating social media.

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