Putin Outflanks His Foes At Home, Obama Abroad: Forbes Ranks Russian

PUTIN OUTFLANKS HIS FOES AT HOME, OBAMA ABROAD: FORBES RANKS RUSSIAN MOST POWERFUL LEADER

The Washington Times
November 28, 2013 Thursday

By Marc Bennetts SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

MOSCOW | President Vladimir Putin is giving proof to the proverb,
“Nothing succeeds like success.”

Since facing massive protests last winter, 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 ½-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 high-ranking secret polic 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.”

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