What looks like a humiliation for Vladimir Putin may actually be convenient for him

Can’t wait for the games to be over.
Can’t wait for the games to be over.
Image: Reuters/Mikhail Metzel
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It clearly looked like a climbdown. This week Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the release of a bunch of high-profile political prisoners—oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, two members of punk band Pussy Riot, and a crew of Greenpeace activists.

The decision, notes Masha Gessen, a prominent Russian-American journalist, came after several heads of state said they wouldn’t be coming to the Winter Olympics, which Russia is hosting this February in Sochi, and immediately after the US announced that its “presidential delegation” to the games would include no top-level officials. Putin, says Gessen, “panicked” at the thought that he might lose the chance to strut his stuff at the games in the company of world leaders, and caved in.

That may well be true. But what looks like a humiliating concession by Putin could also work in his favor.

Keeping Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot, and the Greenpeace activists locked up was a liability for Russia. As figureheads, the prisoners were conduits for a steady stream of relatively ineffectual but nonetheless irritating pressure on the Russian regime—publicity campaigns, diplomatic snubs, street protests. Releasing them at any other time would make the regime look weak for giving into such pressure and possibly encourage other dissidents.

Releasing them in time for the games, on the other hand, is almost expected. It allows Putin to look magnanimous and rid himself of these annoyances without giving any signal that the regime’s attitude to those who get in its way is about to change. Khodorkovsky—who flew straight to Germany, whence it seems unlikely he’ll return to bother anyone in the Russian regime—had already spent 10 years in jail and was due for release in nine months anyway. The Pussy Riot women were most of the way through a two-year sentence. After the games are over, any other oligarch who tries to get too politically active, musicians who try to stage a protest against the church, or environmentalists who try to block an oil-drilling project can expect to be dealt with just as harshly. It will be many years before another event on the scale of the Olympics puts Russia in the spotlight in the same way.