A few years ago, it began to look like Vladimir Putin, the man who had been at the center of Russian power since 1999, was finally losing his grip. Protesters in Moscow and other major Russian cities took to the streets in the bitter cold of winter to protest the very convincing allegations of corruption in the 2011 Russian Duma elections. Putin, who was looking to return to the Russian presidency in 2012, was the focus of their bile, and for the first time in years a real, credible opposition movement appeared, in part led by the charismatic anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny.
At the time, it really looked like Russia was poised to undergo its own Arab Spring, and finally move away from strongman politics to a real democracy. Flash forward to 2013, and that all seems rather laughable.
Putin did return to the presidency in 2012, easily beating his rivals. The opposition movement ultimately struggled and split; Navalny in particular was hobbled not only by criminal prosecutions against him, but also his uncomfortable associations with nationalism. The Kremlin has been able to casually repress dissent, from the art rock troupe Pussy Riot to the LGBT movement, despite Western condemnation. Just last week Putin announced that the well-respected and frequently critical Russian news agency RIA Novosti, founded in 1941, would be dissolved — with a new network led by a notorious reactionary taking its place.
Perhaps nowhere has Putin’s new self confidence been better revealed than on the world stage. As Max Fisher of The Washington Post’s WorldViews blog wrote when declaring Putin his “Man of the Year,” “Putin has made himself and his country unusually consequential this year, exerting Russian influence — usually meager — over some of the most important moments in international relations.”
A lot of Russian influence has come at the cost of U.S. interests. Most obviously, there’s Putin’s hard stance against intervention in Syria: Putin not only did he beat out Barack Obama, an advocate of intervention, in that battle, but he pretty much thumbed his nose at him with a New York Times op-ed. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Putin wrote of American Exceptionalism. Then there was Putin’s offer of asylum to Edward Snowden, and his comments that Russia would “never” extradite the NSA whistleblower to the U.S. Even the tragedy of the Boston marathon bombings offered the Russian President a chance to show Americans his authority, effectively pointing to his years of warnings about Chechen terrorists and saying, “I told you so.”
Putin’s comeback has been undoubtedly impressive, and his bold attitude prompted even the usually anti-Russian American media to take notice of Russia’s action hero president — Matt Drudge branded him the “leader of the free world,” while Forbes said that he was — quite rightly, in our opinion — the most powerful individual on earth.
The big question now, however, is if the Russian president will have as good a year in 2014 as he did in 2013. Will his dreams of Ukraine joining his proposed “Eurasian Union” actually take place? Will the ludicrously over-budget Sochi Olympics be an embarrassment for Russia? His approval ratings, while still high compared to his international peers, are at a historical low, and Russia’s economy remains dangerously dependent on oil and gas.
The past few years have shown, however, that you can’t count Putin out. He came from a life of thuggery in the post-war Leningrad slums to accumulate unrivalled political power (and, if rumours are true, an enormous personal fortune). As Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institute, co-author of “Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” told Business Insider in September, he has a habit of “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”
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