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Putin outflanks his foes at home, Obama abroad

Forbes ranks Russian most powerful leader

- - Thursday, November 28, 2013

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin is giving proof to the proverb, "Nothing succeeds like success."

Since facing massive protests two winters ago, he has stifled nearly all domestic dissent and implemented widely criticized anti-gay laws as Russia prepares to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

He has put the brakes on Ukraine signing a free-trade and political association deal with the European Union, and persuaded Syria to allow international inspections of its chemical weapons.

He met this week with Pope Francis before the "leader of the free world" — President Obama — could secure an audience with the rock-star pontiff.

He even has been awarded a ninth-degree black belt in taekwondo — a level higher than that of action movie icon and all-around tough guy Chuck Norris.

Voted Forbes magazine's most powerful person in the world (supplanting the now No. 2 Mr. Obama), Mr. Putin, 61, has not ruled out a fourth presidential term that could see him remaining in the Kremlin until 2024.

"Right now, there are no visible threats for Putin, either at home or in the international arena," said Fyodor Lukyanov, the well-connected editor of the journal, Russia in Global Affairs. "This has been a very good year for Putin indeed."

The high point of Mr. Putin's year came in September, when the Kremlin derailed Washington's plans for military action against Syria over the suspected use of chemical weapons by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, who Russia has strongly backed in Syria's 2-1/2-year civil war.

While Mr. Obama was fretting over Syria crossing a "red line" over chemical weapons, Russia took advantage of an offhand comment by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and persuaded Mr. Assad to open his chemical stockpile to international inspection. The move boosted Russian diplomatic credentials and help prop up Mr. Assad.

"Putin has a clear world view, and he operates within this in the international arena," said Mr. Lukyanov. "His politics have been much more defined than those of the United States, whose foreign policy in the Middle East, for example, has been both chaotic and incomprehensible."

Other Russian analysts were far more biting.

"Putin is feeling very confident after his success in the international arena, which is very much down to the unbelievable weakness and stupidity of Western leaders, above all U.S. President Barack Obama," said Andrei Piontkovsky, an analyst and Putin opponent.

"Putin knew exactly what he wanted in Syria — to keep Assad in power. Obama didn't know what he wanted at all. Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, are far more experienced than Obama and Kerry. Lavrov simply dominated talks."

A newly resurgent Putin is also seeking to regain control over a number of former Soviet states, with Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine facing Kremlin pressure to back away from closer ties with the European Union. Ukraine's backtracking earlier this month on a landmark trade and cooperation deal with the European Union came after Russia threatened unspecified economic measures against its neighbor.

"Putin knows there can be no return to the Soviet Union," said Mr. Lukyanov, the analyst. "But he reacts quickly to Western attempts to draw former Soviet states further into European integration."

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.

While the protest movement failed to topple Mr. Putin, mass demonstrations in Moscow cracked his image as an all-powerful national leader.

"A crisis is coming," warned Mr. Piontkovsky, the opposition analyst. "But when, no one can say. It could be in the next five days, or in five years' time."