What has Czar Putin been up to in recent weeks? Where is he headed in 2014?

What will Czar Putin do in 2014? (photo credit: Vasily Maximov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images/NYT)

What will Czar Putin do in 2014? (photo credit: Vasily Maximov/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images/NYT)

(Washington, D.C.) — Vladmir Putin sees himself not so much as Russia’s president but as an old-time Czar for the modern age. All knowing. All powerful. Unchecked power. Determined to expand his territory and grow his power and personal wealth. This is what makes him so dangerous.

What has Czar Putin been up to in recent weeks, and where is he headed in 2014? Yesterday, the New York Times published an interesting article considering such questions. I commend it to your attention.

“President Vladimir V. Putin’s freeing of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Russia’s best-known prisoner, by swift, personal fiat capped a remarkable string of single-handed decisions of late,” reports the New York Times. “On Tuesday, he outmaneuvered the West for sway over financially troubled Ukraine with a unilateral decision to provide $15 billion in loans. On Wednesday, at his direction, Parliament passed an amnesty bill that could free thousands of prisoners. On Friday, he pardoned Mr. Khodorkovsky, the former Yukos oil tycoon and onetime aspiring political rival. That was just last week.”

Excerpts from this interesting article:

  • Earlier this month, Mr. Putin shocked Moscow’s political and media circles with a surprise announcement that he would remake RIA-Novosti, the semi-independent state news agency, under the direction of a Kremlin loyalist.       
  • The decisions demonstrate Mr. Putin’s singular ability not only to wield executive power but also to bend the legislative and judicial branches of government to his will, and to exert heavy control over the Russian news media.       
  • “What we are seeing is a president who has no limits on his power in a country that never was democratic, that never had anything called a balance of power — where one of the estates could balance the power of another,” said Vladimir Posner, one of Russia’s most prominent television journalists, with his own nightly show on Channel One, the premier government-controlled station.       
  • “There is no Fourth Estate,” he said. “And as a matter of fact there is no Second or Third Estate. There is just the First, just the presidency. That’s the way things are today in Russia.”       
  • As he prepares to begin his 15th year as Russia’s paramount political leader, Mr. Putin’s sweeping authority gives him far more leverage than his counterparts in the West to influence the course of events and, at times, to set the agenda in world affairs.       
  • In defiance of the United States, Russia granted temporary asylum to the former national security contractor Edward J. Snowden, with Mr. Putin portraying him as a whistle-blower.
  • Mr. Putin also averted an American military strike on Syria with a plan to disarm its chemical weapons.       
  • Yet all of his recent moves carry serious risks. Releasing Mr. Khodorkovsky could well set loose a vengeful rival, with the money and will to do everything possible to force Mr. Putin from power. The bailout of Ukraine could easily turn into a financial debacle, exacerbating Russia’s own creeping economic problems, should Ukraine continue stumbling toward default.       
  • And scrapping RIA-Novosti, a respected news agency, in favor of a replacement already being derided as a Soviet-style propaganda arm could undermine the credibility needed to cultivate the public image that Mr. Putin has sought for Russia as a re-ascendant power, able to challenge the West.       
  • Supporters of Mr. Putin say that his actions reflect sure-footed pursuit of a plan to build a greater Russia, evidenced by mega-vanity projects like the Sochi Olympics that will burnish the image of both the president and his country. A magnanimous gesture like freeing Mr. Khodorkovsky, they say, demonstrates his statesmanship and deflects any criticism of authoritarianism.
  • Critics say the recent moves are tactical, aimed at retaining power that is sure to slip as the flood of cash from the country’s vast fossil fuel reserves, which generated unprecedented wealth during his tenure, slowly recedes. By this view, Mr. Putin is impulsive and increasingly isolated, unchecked by opponents or even by formerly trusted advisers….
  • Experts said Russia’s slowing growth was another factor in Mr. Putin’s recent decisions, prompting him to take steps to improve the investment climate to attract foreign capital, as well as to lift his own popularity in case the economy takes a dive. In part because of a slowing economy and rising prices, Mr. Putin’s approval rating stands at 61 percent, its lowest point since 2000, the first year of his presidency, according to the Levada Center, a polling agency here.
  • Chris Weafer, a senior partner at Macro-Advisory, a consulting firm based in Moscow, said that the release of Mr. Khodorkovsky was a positive sign, but that more would be needed to reassure skittish foreign investors. “The reason investors are wary is not because of the arrest of Khodorkovsky 10 years ago,” he said. “It’s the corruption, the poor business climate, the perception that there is little respect for the rule of law.”
  • Sergei M. Guriev, a former rector of the New Economics School in Moscow, said in a telephone interview that he, too, believed that the president’s recent decisions had been dictated in part by economic challenges. “There is no external crisis, and yet the Russian economy is growing only at one-and-a-half percent a year,” he said. “Oil prices are high, and yet the Russian government is balancing the budget with difficulty. Not everything is going so well.”

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