Moscow: Its economy, already smaller than Italy’s, may be sputtering but, two decades after a virtually unknown former KGB spy took power in the Kremlin on December 31, 1999, Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have just had what could be their best year yet.

The United States, an implacable foe during the Cold War but now presided over by a president determined to “get along with Russia,” is convulsed and distracted by impeachment; Britain, the other main pillar of a trans-Atlantic alliance that Putin has worked for years to undermine, is also turning inward and just voted for a government that vows to exit the European Union by the end of January.

The Middle East, where American and British influence once reigned supreme, has increasingly tilted towards Moscow as it turned the tide of war in Syria; provided Turkey, a member of Nato, with advanced missile systems; and signed contracts worth billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia, America’s closest ally in the Arab world. Russia has also drawn close to Egypt, another longtime US ally; become a key player in Libya’s civil war; and moved towards what looks more and more like an alliance with China.

It has been barely five years since President Barack Obama’s dismissive 2014 judgment of Russia as a “regional power” capable only of threatening its neighbours “not out of strength but out of weakness.” Its successes raise a mystifying question: How has a country like Russia, huge in size - it has 11 time zones - but puny when measured by economic and other important metrics, become such a potent force?

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, everyone was asking the same question,” recalled Nina Khrushcheva, granddaughter of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and a Russia expert at the New School in New York: “How is it that such a rotten system punched so far above its weight?”

The West, Khrushcheva said, has repeatedly misread a country whose ambitions are as immense as its territory - it stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea - and that is often untethered from what looks like reality. Putin, she said, “is at once a technocrat and a religious zealot, an exhibitionist and a master of secrets. You expect one thing, linearly, and suddenly it’s entirely something else, smoke and mirrors.”

Under Putin, Vladislav Surkov, a longtime Kremlin adviser, wrote in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper, earlier this year, Russia “is playing with the West’s minds.”