A good year for Vladimir Putin has been a bad one for Russia

Image of Philip Stephens

Mikhail Khodorkovsky is to be freed. After more than a decade dumped in the gulag for daring to challenge Vladimir Putin’s authority, the former head of the Yukos oil company is to be granted a presidential pardon. It would be a mistake to see this as change of heart in the Kremlin. More likely, as with the amnesty proposed for jailed Greenpeace activists and the Pussy Riot female punk band, it was the calculated gesture of an autocrat who sees advantage in occasional acts of supposed generosity.

By his own measure, Mr Putin has had a good year. The Russian president craves international respect. By stepping back from the world, the US ceded to Moscow space at the top table. Mr Putin likes to kid himself that Russia is America’s equal as a global superpower. Pardoning Mr Khodorkovsky was the act of someone who likes to pretend Russia is still the equal of the US.

Western vacillation over Syria gave Mr Putin an important diplomatic victory. Barack Obama had threatened to bomb Bashar al-Assad’s regime after its use of chemical weapons, but everyone knew the US president’s heart was not in it. As Mr Obama hesitated, David Cameron, Britain’s sabre-rattling prime minister, found his sword taken away from him by his own parliament. François Hollande, the French president, was left stranded at the altar of muscular interventionism.

The deal for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons saw Washington concede that Mr Assad would hold on to power. It sent two other messages: the west can no longer get rid of Middle Eastern leaders without Russian consent, and Moscow is indispensable in any effort to broker political settlements.

As it happens, the chemical weapons pact got Mr Obama off a painful hook. Mr Putin, though, looked the winner. For many on the right of US politics, the episode was proof of America’s diminished authority in the Middle East. Mr Putin’s backing for the deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programme carried the same message for Washington’s foreign policy hawks.

Closer to home Moscow scuppered a co-operation pact in which Armenia would have looked westwards to the EU. So far – though there are still big protests on the streets in Kiev – Mr Putin also seems to have succeeded in sabotaging Ukraine’s integration with its western neighbours. Mr Putin is determined that Moscow’s erstwhile vassals be corralled into a Eurasian customs union.

In both cases, the Kremlin deployed a mix of threats and promises. The coercion probably counted for more than the incentives. The small print of Mr Putin’s deal with Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich shows that Moscow’s financial largesse comes with tough conditions. Ukraine will get the money only for as long as it does what it is told. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, was right in his acerbic remark that for Mr Putin the “politics of brutal pressure evidently works”.

All this leaves Mr Putin feeling puffed up in advance of the Sochi Winter Olympics. The cost of the games has spiralled out of control and, in protest at Russia’s disregard for human rights, many world leaders will boycott the event. Never mind. The fanfare, Mr Putin hopes, will help sustain the illusion that Russia is rising again. The release of Mr Khodorkovsky and other dissidents, he hopes, will draw the sting from western protests.

The Kremlin views foreign policy as a zero-sum game in which Nato and the EU are permanent adversaries. Russia only wins if the west is seen to lose. In this cold war mindset, the economic integration of Ukraine with the west would be a defeat for Russia. So too would the removal of Mr Assad from Syria. Even expanded trade between Armenia and western Europe would have shaken the Kremlin’s control of the post-Soviet space.

Russia has no willing friends to speak of. Instead there are those it cows into submission and a handful of allies of convenience that see instrumental advantage in ties with Moscow. The US, for all its critics, has many admirers and imitators. No one wants to be like Russia. Its power is that of the spoiler.

Mr Putin’s vanity throws a veil over Russian weakness. While the president struts his stuff, Russia slips further into economic decline. The country’s strategic frailties – an ageing, shrinking population, crumbling infrastructure, an unmodernised economy, endemic corruption and the absence of the rule of law – have been well documented. Falling oil prices and slower growth give new immediacy to the problems. Russia is offering Ukraine billions of dollars that before too long it will be unable to afford.

There are moments when Mr Putin almost seems to admit such unpalatable truths. He recently accused his own government of failing to staunch the flood of capital from the country and demanded Russian companies be sanctioned for shifting their capital offshore. Here perhaps lies another explanation for the decision to set Mr Khodorkovsky free: the former oligarch’s imprisonment has been a permanent reminder to potential investors – Russian and foreign alike – that their assets can be confiscated at the whim of the Kremlin.

Mr Khodorkovsky may soon be free but nothing much else has changed. At his annual press conference this week Mr Putin returned to a well-worn theme: the collapse of the Soviet Union had been one of the tragedies of the 20th century. The real calamity has been Russia’s fall at the hands of a rapacious and lawless autocracy.

philip.stephens@ft.com


Letters in response to this column:

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