Vladimir Putin had reason to be jovial during his traditional annual press conference, held Thursday in front of 1,300 journalists. There is no doubt that this has been a good year for the Russian president. In foreign affairs, he has made it clear that Moscow has found a new role in the international arena. And the massive amnesty that will win the release of several high-profile prisoners represents a coup de théâtre against the boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi, due to begin in February.
Putin’s latest diplomatic accomplishment is the agreement with Ukraine. Russian aid in the form of a $15-billion loan and a price reduction of more than a third on the gas bill that Ukraine pays to the state-owned Gazprom is being viewed — no matter how much Putin may deny it — as a reward for President Yanukovych for derailing the association agreement with the European Union, and possibly paving the way for membership in the Customs Union of former Soviet republics. It is another story altogether whether the agreement will really be a Kremlin victory over the West: it is unclear whether Russian investment in Ukrainian bonds will silence the opponents of Yanukovych, or much less whether it will help drive forward an economy in dire need of reform and teetering on the brink of collapse.
Putin is also patting himself on the back over the crisis created by his asylum offer to Edward Snowden after the NSA whistleblower revealed a massive spying operation by US intelligence services. It is hard to believe that Moscow was not included in the reams of data accumulated by Snowden. In any case, Putin, an ex-KGB agent, displayed a certain dose of cynicism when he praised the former analyst’s “nobleness.” The asylum decision was a setback for Barack Obama, but on the other hand Putin helped Obama save face during the Syrian crisis by encouraging a diplomatic way out that kept the US president from having to follow through on his promise of using military force to punish Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.
Putin’s successes contrast with the sometimes hesitating image offered by Obama, but nobody should be deceived by this. Russia has undeniable weaknesses, starting with an economy that can’t seem to get off the ground, at a time when the US has become the world’s biggest producer of hydrocarbons. But Russia’s greatest weakness is no doubt political in nature. Putin’s decision to free the members of punk band Pussy Riot and the tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was as arbitrary as are their prison convictions and cannot conceal the authoritarianism, corruption and abuse that make up everyday reality in Russia.