The reality of Putin is that he wants and needs to retain power. That implies control over Russian oil and gas and the wealth these generate with which he can buy loyalty. His core market for oil and gas is the rest of Europe. Hence, Putin has no real interest in undermining European security so fundamentally that it would decrease demand for his products.
That doesn’t mean he isn’t trying to game things to his advantage, or that he doesn’t enjoy the game and being the smartest. What happened in the US seems amazingly fortunate but it’s far from certain that Trump will be less of a danger than Clinton or Obama. The campaign in Syria appears to be successful but can Russia now leave? And how did the adventure in Ukraine really benefit Russia? So it has control over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine but all that does is bleed vital wealth from Kremlin coffers. Trump seems poised to further deregulate and expand shale production in the US and with it, do real harm to Russia’s already terrible state finances. Europe is investing in alternatives to Russian energy because of the Ukraine fiasco. Things are so bad that Putin has already almost depleted reserves and has started to plunder pension funds in order to fund budget gaps.
With that, we also see a huge unknown: what will Putin do if oil and gas sales no longer suffice to keep him in power? Russia may say it has a budget designed to function at a $40 oil price, but that budget doesn’t include keeping forces in Syria or the ability to consolidate gains in Ukraine. Even if Trump is willing to kiss Putin’s hand, there is no escaping an economy that he failed to diversify. Worse, with Trump as a friend, he just lost the great enemy that he could scare his own people with. So who then would be the next enemy, Germany or China or both? Is that convincing? Much is unknown, and clear enough is that Putin is a great tactician but only plays small games, his lack of a strategy or positive vision for the Russians is his achilles heel. The Russian people don’t belong behind a mental wall of enmity and insecurity while oligarchs plunder their wealth.
According to IMF & World Bank estimates, The Russian economy is only as large as that of Australia (a country of only 23 million), it only is half the size of the French economy. The Russian economy is only 6% the size of the US or EU economies. It is amazing that Putin has been able to grasp the attention of the world for this long with such meagre resources. He is a con man who keeps everyone spellbound with his antics and proclamations while rolling your pockets. And if he fails, and cannot pay off his siloviki and oligarchs, then what?
A graceful exit would be to hold accountable elections and allow a new generation to assume power. Putin is on top of his game now and a hero. Unfortunately Nemtsov was murdered and viable opposition has been decapitated . It could get a lot worse before it gets any better.