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At home, Mr. Putin has cracked down hard on protests that posed the biggest challenge to his 14-year reign as prime minister and president.

Protest figures have been jailed or placed under house arrest since Mr. Putin returned to a third term as president in May 2012, and a number of new laws have made open dissent much more risky.

Best and brightest fleeing

Other opposition figures have fled Russia — including Garry Kasparov, chess grandmaster-turned-protest leader, and Sergei Guriev, a respected economist who advised Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.

Mr. Guriev was forced to flee after investigators questioned him over a report he wrote for Mr. Medvedev that was critical of charges against jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsy, a Putin opponent. Mr. Kasparov and Mr. Guriev are just among some of the most high-profile names in the growing exodus of Russia’s best and brightest.

“Everyone, both the young and the old, wants to live. And — in as much as nothing good is likely to happen in Russia for the next 20 years — I’d sincerely advise everyone to leave, if they can,” opposition journalist Oleg Kashin, who survived a 2010 attempt on his life, told a local pro-opposition website earlier this month.

Others in the beleaguered opposition are more optimistic. Ilya Yashin, a high-profile anti-Putin activist, admitted that the protest movement was shaky but hailed the emergence of one of its leaders, Alexei Navalny, as a nationally recognized politician. Mr. Navalny was jailed for five years on disputed fraud charges in July, but his sentence was suspended after an unexpectedly strong showing in September’s mayoral elections in Moscow.

“The protest movement might not have achieved its aims yet, but we have made progress,” Mr. Yashin said. “In the past, we were entirely underground. We could not take part in elections, and the authorities could do whatever they wanted with us. Now, we have support in major cities, and in Navalny we can finally offer a viable alternative to Putin.”

Lecturing the West

Mr. Putin’s rocketing confidence has been reflected in his willingness to attack the West.

In September, he penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he criticized “American exceptionalism.”

“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Mr. Putin wrote. “We are all different; but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Ironically, for the leader of a country where atheism was once official state policy and who served as a secret police officer, Mr. Putin has also sought to portray Russia as the defender of “Christian values.” In a recent speech, Mr. Putin accused Western countries of moral and spiritual degeneration.

“Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan,” Mr. Putin seethed. “This is the path to degradation.”

Despite his apparent invincibility, critics point to dangers on the horizon. The economy is stagnant and tensions between ethnic Russians and natives of the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, have erupted into violence several times this year.

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