The election may be in the bag, but in many other ways Russia is going off the rails.

This weekend, Vladimir Putin will win reelection to the presidency of the Russian Federation, besting a parade of jesters and pocket candidates who were chosen to placate different demographics—elderly Communists, nationalists, yuppies—without offering any real competition. Putin’s only plausible rival for the post, the charismatic anticorruption campaigner Aleksey Navalny, was banned from running due to a prior conviction on cooked-up embezzlement charges that have left his brother sitting in prison.

Putin’s reelection will come amid a still-growing crisis over the poisoning of former spy Sergey Skripal in the United Kingdom last week. The British government has said definitively that Russia is responsible for the poisoning—a highly credible accusation, considering that the nerve agent used was developed in the former Soviet Union and possessed only by the Russian government. In many ways, the Skripal affair embodies the main dynamic of late Putinism, in which tactical daring has replaced strategic coherence, leaving Russia increasingly boxed into a corner.

A costly display of power

Over the last six years, Putin has sought to shift the conversation from Russia’s stagnating economy with a series of bold foreign policy plays that would “bring Russia off its knees.” Since his return to the presidency in 2012, Russia has occupied Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine, saved Bashar al-Assad in Syria and made itself an indispensable actor in the Middle East, and interfered in the American elections with…

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