Once again it has been the year of Vladimir Putin. The Russian President puts his imprint on global events as the most influential world leader.

Putin gave a press conference in Moscow on Friday. The modern-day tsar with an iron domestic grip felt free to boldly flick advice westward.

He lectured beleaguered British Prime Minister Theresa May on Brexit - as polls show more Britons favouring a second referendum. "She must enact the will of the people ... otherwise it is not a referendum at all," he said. On the idea of further referendums, he added: "Is this democracy?"

He weighed in on the Trump Administration's plan to pull United States troops out of Syria - from an area of control that is home to 2.7 million people. "American troops should not be in Syria and have been there illegally. If the decision to withdraw them was taken, that's the right decision."


If you are a Western leader enacting a policy in sync with Putin's strategic goals, it might be time for a rethink. Former British Foreign Secretary David Milliband commented on Twitter: "The overwhelming evidence of malign and multiple Russian interventions in Western democratic processes, including the Brexit referendum, have been designed to destabilise democratic rule."

The New York Times quoted Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs analyst, as saying: "Trump is God's gift that keeps on giving. Trump implements Russia's negative agenda by default, undermining the US-led world order, US alliances, US credibility ... Russia can just relax and watch and root for Trump."

Western unity has never looked more ragged. Putin's competitors, the leaders of Britain, Germany and France, are also struggling. Chancellor Angela Merkel is on a long goodbye from power, due to retire in 2021. French President Emmanuel Macron has been under siege from protesters and anaemic poll ratings. May is trying to ride the chaotic Brexit saga to some conclusion.

In the Middle East, Russia is the key power broker after Putin's intervention turned the tide of the Syrian civil war in Bashar al-Assad's favour. Russia is allied with Syria and Iran and talks to Turkey, Israel, Hamas and Hizbollah.

The Trump Administration's Syria move was a gift for Russia. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis quitting removed an official willing to argue policy with Trump. Russia and its allies have an opening to consolidate control over Syria as the US abandons Kurdish allies and civilians.

Yet there are valid reasons for ending the American footprint in Syria. Why should it drag on endlessly? Troops are in harm's way. It's expensive.

But a swift pullout is rash and risky, leaves a vacuum Isis could grow into like a tumour, endangers lives and could set off another refugee wave.

There's also another conspicuous vacuum: US international leadership is weak and erratic.


Putin and other leaders know it and are taking advantage. The world must look pretty good from Putin's seat in the Kremlin.