• Putin triumphs in 2013 yet tough challenges loom
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     | January 01,2014
     
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    Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Premier Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow’s Kremlin.

    MOSCOW — Displaying the killer instincts of a chess grandmaster, Vladimir Putin rang out 2013 with an exceptional list of accomplishments.

    The Russian president humiliated the United States by sheltering NSA leaker Edward Snowden, brokered a Syrian chemical weapons deal that averted a seemingly inevitable U.S. military strike and outmaneuvered the 28-nation European Union in the wrestling match for influence over Ukraine.

    Putin also surprised both his own people and the world by pardoning his old foe, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and allowing an amnesty that got two Pussy Riot punk band members and over two dozen Greenpeace anti-oil drilling activists out of prison.

    “It’s Putin’s moment. He should feel quite happy,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political strategist and onetime adviser to the Kremlin.

    But as the 61-year-old leader prepares for his pet project — the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi — to begin in February, dark clouds are hovering. Two terrorist attacks in the southern city of Volgograd this week raised the specter of continuing violence in the run-up to the games. In addition, the Sochi Olympics are still dogged by fierce criticism over the Russian law signed by Putin that bans so-called “gay propaganda” for minors.

    And beyond the Olympics, bigger risks loom.

    Russia’s ailing economy continues to depend almost entirely on oil and gas. Even though energy prices have remained high, the country is on the brink of recession with growth at just over 1 percent, not enough for Putin to meet his generous social obligations.

    Russia’s rampant official corruption and its politically tainted justice system have spooked foreign investors, while its smoldering ethnic tensions and widening gap between rich and poor are increasing social instability.

    James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, said while Putin has had a “spectacularly good year,” it has masked the almost “insurmountable problems” facing Russia.

    “Absent major league reform and an entire removal of the Russian elite who do not desire any significant structural change — because it would be fundamentally contradictory to their interest — you’re just not going to see a Russia which moves on,” he said.

    But for now, Putin is basking in the limelight after a series of political victories.

    “Putin looks like a man who controls developments,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs magazine and head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, a top expert group. “That makes him different from many other leaders, who have to react to somebody else’s actions.”

    By providing a refuge to Snowden despite U.S. demands for his extradition, Putin dealt a painful blow to Washington.

    “It turned out that Russia was the only country capable of resisting the (U.S.) pressure,” Lukyanov said.

    Putin has insisted that Snowden isn’t being controlled by Russia, but many observers doubt that Russian security agencies would have missed the chance to learn what they could from the American.

    Annoyed by years of Western criticism of Russia’s human rights record, Putin clearly relished the chance to highlight the U.S. National Security Agency’s questionable surveillance of citizens and foreigners alike.

    “I feel jealous because he can do that unpunished,” Putin said this month about President Barack Obama, commenting on the Snowden case.

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