Who knows how far the rouble will have fallen by the time you read this. Russia’s collapsing currency is a fitting end-note to a chaotic year in which the unpredictable actions of one man in a red castle have had more impact on events across the world than anyone could have predicted.
The “new cold war” may be overblown but Vladimir Putin has undoubtedly placed himself at the centre of world events. Whether that is something he will be celebrating as he looks back at the year that was is another matter. His support for the kleptocratic presidency of Victor Yanukovych, his annexation of Crimea – the first time a European nation has had part of its territory sawn off since the Second World War – and his subsequent support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, including those who shot down the Malaysia Airlines flight, has all helped to create a regional crisis that has cost thousands of lives.
Putin banked on the West blinking and for a while they did. Rows broke out between the US, with few economic links to Russia, and Europe, with many, over just how severe sanctions should be. Germany, Europe’s de facto leader, had to recalibrate its more nuanced relationship with Russia. France took far too long to suspend its arms deals; Britain managed to get away with calls for action that ignored the billions flowing into London from Russian oligarchs.
But as the rouble’s astonishing tumble has proven, economic sanctions have been effective. They may not have forced Putin to give up Crimea, nor have they eroded support for the separatists, but Moscow has been forced to pause. It remains to be seen what impact the crumbling economy will have on Putin’s popularity, which remains astonishingly high.
Putin didn’t have a plan; he has careered from one crisis to another, advised by a dwindling band of associates, giving little thought to the long-term consequences of each action. He may appear serene on TV but one suspects the legs are scrambling furiously below the surface. As we look towards 2015 the biggest fear may not be what Putin does next but whether he remains the man taking the decisions. For the West the only thing worse than a Putin-led Russia may be the mess that follows his fall.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s foreign editor.