Putin triumphs in 2013 yet tough challenges loom
Displaying the killer instincts of a chess grandmaster, Vladimir
Putin rang out 2013 with an exceptional list of
The Russian president humiliated the United States by sheltering
NSA leaker Edward Snowden, brokered a Syrian chemical weapons deal
that averted a seemingly inevitable U.S. military strike and
outmaneuvered the 28-nation European Union in the wrestling match
for influence over Ukraine.
Putin also surprised both his own people and the world by
pardoning his old foe, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and
allowing an amnesty that got Pussy Riot punk band members and
Greenpeace anti-oil drilling activists out of prison.
”It’s Putin’s moment. He should feel quite happy,” said Gleb
Pavlovsky, a political strategist and onetime adviser to the
But as the 61-year-old leader prepares for his pet project – the
2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi – to begin in February, dark clouds
are hovering. Two terrorist attacks in the southern city of
Volgograd this week raised the specter of continuing violence in
the run-up to the games. In addition, the Sochi Olympics are still
dogged by fierce criticism over the Russian law signed by Putin
that bans so-called ”gay propaganda” for minors.
And beyond the Olympics, bigger risks loom.
Russia’s ailing economy continues to depend almost entirely on
oil and gas. Even though energy prices have remained high, the
country is on the brink of recession with growth at just over 1
percent, not enough for Putin to meet his generous social
Russia’s rampant official corruption and its politically tainted
justice system have spooked foreign investors, while its smoldering
ethnic tensions and widening gap between rich and poor are
increasing social instability.
James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham
House, said while Putin has had a ”spectacularly good year,” it
has masked the almost ”insurmountable problems” facing
”Absent major league reform and an entire removal of the
Russian elite who do not desire any significant structural change –
because it would be fundamentally contradictory to their interest –
you’re just not going to see a Russia which moves on,” he
But for now, Putin is basking in the limelight after a series of
”Putin looks like a man who controls developments,” said
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine
and head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, a top
expert group. ”That makes him different from many other leaders,
who have to react to somebody else’s actions.”
By providing a refuge to Snowden despite U.S. demands for his
extradition, Putin dealt a painful blow to Washington.
”It turned out that Russia was the only country capable of
resisting the (U.S.) pressure,” Lukyanov said.
Putin has insisted that Snowden isn’t being controlled by
Russia, but many observers doubt that Russian security agencies
would have missed the chance to rustle through the massive trove of
secrets in Snowden’s possession.
Annoyed by years of Western criticism of Russia’s human rights
record, Putin clearly relished the chance to highlight the U.S.
National Security Agency’s questionable surveillance of citizens
and foreigners alike.
”I feel jealous because he can do that unpunished,” Putin said
this month about President Barack Obama, commenting on the Snowden
Obama canceled a Russia-U.S. summit amid the Snowden fallout,
but he attended September’s Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg,
where he had a brief conversation with Putin. The meeting took
place as Obama was considering a military strike on Syria over its
use of chemical weapons against civilians and Putin used the
occasion to play his Syria game.
He proposed that Moscow and Washington pool their efforts to
persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to surrender his chemical
arsenal and have it dismantled under international control. Syria
quickly agreed, the U.S. called off the strike and Assad became a
party in the deal that eased international pressure for his
A year ago, Putin ”was seen as the villain on Syria” while
”this year he has appeared as the person who was right on Syria,”
said Pierre Lorrain of France’s Institute of Social History, noting
that Putin had warned about the rise of Islamic extremists in Syria
and pushed for a peace conference that the West has now agreed to
Nixey said Putin succeeded thanks to his relationship with the
Assad regime and the Western reluctance to go to war.
”The combination of the two meant he could produce a quick
diplomatic two-step, which confounded the West,” he said.
Another tally in Putin’s win column came in November, when
Ukraine’s president abruptly spiked a pact with the EU that would
have made the ex-Soviet nation closer to the West and limited
Moscow’s influence over its neighbor. Realizing that Ukraine was on
the verge of bankruptcy, Putin circumvented the EU by offering
Ukraine a $15 billion bailout and a price discount for gas
supplies. The EU, in contrast, was coy about any financial
Lorrain said the EU misunderstood the situation ”until too
late.” He likened Putin’s strategy to that of a ”good judo
combatant, using the adversary’s arguments against him.”
Nixey said Putin put the symbolism of reclaiming Ukraine above
Russia’s economic realities, which could come back to haunt
”Ukraine is a basket case run by some very nasty oligarchs and
a president who is weaker than a newborn baby. It is to Russia’s
disadvantage that it takes it on,” he said.
Putin was so confident in 2013 that he could announce on
television that he was divorcing his wife of three decades and not
fear any political fallout.
That hubris contrasts sharply with a tense period two years ago,
when massive demonstrations in Moscow made Putin look cornered and
He responded to the urban, middle-class protests by
consolidating his support base of blue-collar workers and state
employees, branding the opposition as Western stooges and accusing
Washington of fomenting unrest in Russia. After his victory, the
Kremlin squashed the opposition with a series of draconian laws and
arrests and unleased a campaign against non-government
Russia’s image abroad darkened further after a ban on adoptions
of Russian children by U.S. parents and the passage this year of a
law banning ”homosexual propaganda among minors.” Gay rights
groups say the law gives authorities and others a green light to
harass the country’s LGBT community and have called for a boycott
of the Winter Olympics.
Putin may have pardoned his most visible foes but that doesn’t
weaken his tight control over Russia’s political scene.
Khodorkovsky, who spent more than 10 years in prison in what is
seen as a vendetta for challenging Putin’s rule, flew to Germany
where he said he had no immediate plans to return to Russia, engage
in politics or try to reclaim his assets. And while the two Pussy
Riot members denounced Putin’s amnesty as a political stunt and
called for a boycott of the Olympics, their activism poses much
less danger to the Kremlin than keeping them in prison.
Obama and several other Western leaders are not attending the
Sochi Games – a painful jab but one the Kremlin and Putin have
tried to ignore.
”Their refusal to come is an important signal, but it won’t
hurt the Olympics too much,” Pavlovsky said.
AP writers Cassandra Vinograd in London and Angela Charlton in
Paris contributed to this report.