Along with Time magazine’s “Man of the Year,” Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin has had a particularly good year. His success has come largely at the expense of the West.

Whether in Syria, where Putin deftly out-foxed the U.S. with the result that his ally, Bashir Al Assad, is now more secure than before; or Egypt, where the Russians are rapidly filling the influence vacuum following the ouster of President Morsi; or, most recently, in Ukraine, where Putin is flexing his neighbourly muscle in order to block closer cooperation with the EU, an ominous pattern is emerging.

Russia’s global rise under Putin is all the more surprising given that its economy is in deep trouble. Last week the IMF slashed Russia’s economic growth forecast to 1.5 per cent, citing the country’s over-dependence on exporting oil and gas, its desperate need for major structural reforms, and its inadequate infrastructure and weak labour market.

Nevertheless, Putin senses political weakness and is determined to exploit opportunities in volatile regions like the Middle East or in what once was part of the Soviet Union so that he can restore the grandeur and the respect of the former superpower, even as the Russian economy flounders. Despite fervent street demonstrations in Kiev, he has not encountered much political resistance anywhere else.

Putin’s decision to transform the Russian state news agency into his personal house organ is integral to his larger objective. The one constant is that Putin will do whatever he can get away with to achieve his goal at least until his lunges are thwarted in kind.

In the case of Ukraine, Putin is making an offer he believes the former Soviet satellite cannot refuse – an emergency loan for Ukraine’s struggling economy on terms more generous than those from the IMF or others together with natural gas supplies at cut-rate prices.

If carrots like this are not sufficient, Putin can also use the stick by cutting off gas supplies or adding sanctions to commerce that would damage Ukraine’s economy, which is still highly dependent on bilateral trade with Russia.

He has used both — unblinkingly — in the past.

To guarantee that his message gets heard, Putin is also ensuring that Russia’s TV networks, which he more than tacitly controls, are giving full-throated support to President Yanukovych’s “brave” stand against the demonstrations.

Russian television is watched by many in Ukraine, where emotions run the gamut for and against “Mother Russia”.

The EU cannot compete with bribes or pressures of this kind.

The benefits from the economic agreement contemplated with Ukraine would be long term and would give little immediate redress other than a spark of investor confidence. The EU’s “sticks,” namely calls for prompt and free elections and for court and media reforms are well-intentioned, but have little appeal to the Yanukovych regime nor do calls for the immediate release from prison of the ailing former President Yulia Tymoshenko.

As the saying goes, the problem for the EU in Ukraine is that they are “bringing a knife to a gunfight.”

Events in the Middle East and Eastern Europe amply demonstrate that democracy is a very fragile flower, one that certainly can blossom overnight.

Collectively, the West has shown itself to be singularly inept in giving much more than rhetorical support to countries where it tries to take root.

In years past, when Russia imposed unilateral trade sanctions on Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Lithuania, there was little more than polite expressions of concern from western capitals. The current demonstrations in Kiev against a return to the past manifest a unique spirit of freedom. Apart from diplomatic maneuvers by the EU and supportive visits by the likes of Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, or US Senator John McCain, the western response has been mealy.

Russia’s “blue flame” diplomacy is also vastly more persuasive, as Armenia and others in the former Soviet bloc have already learned as Putin woos them with generous gas deals and participation in a customs union.

When U.S. President Barack Obama embarked on his “reset” with Russia, he backed away from an anti-missile shield intended for Poland and the Czech Republic, much to the consternation of both, he expected more than the back of the hand from Putin, yet that is what he got in return.

The Poles and the Czechs have seen this kind of movie before, as have the Baltic States who remain committed to the EU and to NATO and are determined to resist the siren song from Moscow.

What ultimately happens to Ukraine will be critical to Putin’s destiny.

But his mix of flattery and thuggery to join the new Russia’s sphere of influence is compelling. Pressure will mount on other former Soviet republics to bring back to the fold.

But the West has some sticks too. It is time to look at excluding Russia from the G-8 table of global diplomacy. Today, Russian shares neither the political nor the economic values which underpin this body. Cutting Russia out of G-8 would hit Putin where it would hurt most–his vanity or unwarranted desire for global respect.

One must remember that the G-7 members extended the invitation at the 1995 Halifax Summit to bolster Moscow’s move to democratic capitalism. But that has not happened and Putin is taking Russia back to its old Soviet ways. Failure should not be rewarded. It will be “Back to the Future” unless the West adopts a more principled and forceful stance with Russia. If Putin is allowed to succeed, the real losers will be democracy and the Russian people.

In choosing its “Man of the Year” Time clearly made the better choice.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.