There's nothing the man in Kremlin wishes for more than Angela Merkel's fall, which could give him plenty of leverage to play with and mould Europe.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has a vision for how Europe could collapse — quickly. If German Chancellor Angela Merkel should fall from power, the singular leader who has shaped Europe's attitude towards Moscow would be out of the way.
In recent weeks, Putin has seen several prominent German politicians question Merkel"s maintenance of punitive measures against Russia for its infringement of international law.
Horst Seehofer, a conservative Merkel ally and president of the state of Bavaria, has even paid his respect to the court of the new tsar on a recent trip to Moscow. With the German Chancellor struggling in the face of the refugee crisis, Russian officials increasingly believe the post-Merkel-era is within their grasp, which they see as a chance to exert their influence over all of Europe.
Seehofer's visit came just as the Kremlin had decided to step up its war of disinformation against the liberal democracy of Germany. Russian media has been spreading a false story of a Russian girl raped by a horde of refugees in Germany, presenting a warped view of a country turned into a diabolic place of laxity and lawlessness.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov topped this with brazen accusations that German authorities publicly apologize for the way ethnic Russians living in Germany are treated.
It's pretty clear: The Kremlin no longer hesitates when it comes to expressing its expansionist ambitions for Western Europe — and Moscow is continuously testing how far it can go.
What is Putin's ultimate aim? Though military conquest of Europe is not an option, his growing public threats could be laying the groundwork for political hegemony. That would follow his dream of breaking up the tight bonds written into the European Union, leaving in its wake various countries that would look for Moscow's approval on any important political moves.
Putin's vision of a Europe dominated by Russia is based on a neo-imperial ideology that melds Russian visions of superiority from its tsarist epoch with the heritage of Soviet despotism.
This world view is well tailored to the leader-and-redeemer personality that is Putin. His sense of mission and a cynically pragmatic instinct of authority merged into one inseparable unit a long time ago.
Sugarcoating in Syria
Considering the dimension of this European challenge, it looks like nothing but wishful thinking when the West assumes that Russia's struggling economy will force Putin toward moderation and cooperation.
Indeed Putin has already begun preparing his society to take on the responsibility of the unique metaphysical role of the controlling "Russian world" in saving the Christian West from its liberal decomposition traced to the weak-willed "American universalism." Disrespect of international law in the name of this higher mission is at the core of the Russian regime.
Putin has spent years building himself as the savior and renovator of "Russian-ness," and his regime is likely to answer to any challenges with an even more aggressive anti-Western line of action, in order to drive his own population's resentment towards an exterior enemy.
But even today, Putin's geopolitical push is of course not limited to Europe. In Syria, he proudly demonstrates how easy it is to expose a demoralized West by accomplished facts on the ground.
As a matter of fact, the West — including Washington — sugarcoats the Russian intervention in Syria in favor of Bashar al-Assad's regime by calling it a good step in the fight against international terrorism. Meanwhile, this fiction serves as a justification to put pressure on Ukraine to make more concessions to the Russian aggressor.
The U.S. is still hopeful it can come to an agreement with Moscow in Ukraine. But even if Putin should be ready to make tactical compromise due to the tremendous cost of his double operation in Syria and Ukraine, he will never cede on territorial claims in his own neighborhood.
Of course, even in the face of Putin's aggressiveness, agreements with the Kremlin are not out of the question. But as European unity dissipates, the West will find it increasingly difficult to impose clear boundaries on Putin's hegemonic ambitions.