Skip to main content

Vladimir Putin's remarkable comeback

By Daniel Treisman
updated 7:39 AM EST, Mon February 3, 2014
Russian president Vladimir Putin hits the slopes of Sochi during a pre-Olympic Winter Games visit to the Black Sea resort. Russian president Vladimir Putin hits the slopes of Sochi during a pre-Olympic Winter Games visit to the Black Sea resort.
HIDE CAPTION
On the piste
VIP visitors
Security fears
Tough guy
Fall guy
Top facilities
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two years ago, Vladimir Putin was in trouble, with widespread protests and falling ratings
  • Daniel Treisman says Putin's fortunes have rebounded as the Sochi Olympics approach
  • Putin's ratings are up and he's had successes in international issues, Treisman says
  • Treisman: Putin faces economy with fading growth, and his luck could run out

Editor's note: Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of "The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev."

(CNN) -- As Russian President Vladimir Putin opens the Winter Olympics in Sochi on February 7, there will be relief hidden behind his characteristically guarded smile. For Putin, the past two years have witnessed a remarkable recovery.

Two years ago, Putin seemed to be on the ropes. Tens of thousands of Muscovites were flooding central squares to protest a parliamentary election they said had been tarnished by massive fraud. His approval ratings were in free fall, having dropped 15 points since December 2010, according to polls from Moscow's Levada Center.

Internationally, Putin was also on the defensive. He appeared to have isolated himself by backing the wrong horse in Syria's civil war. As rebels closed in on the Damascus suburbs, many observers thought Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Putin supported, would soon be swept from power. If so, Russia stood to lose its only Mediterranean military outpost, the naval station it leased at Tartus.

Daniel Treisman
Daniel Treisman

The European Union, alarmed at the continent's dependence on Russian gas, had raided offices of the Russian company Gazprom in Germany and the Czech Republic and was planning further investigations. When built, a projected EU- and U.S.-supported Nabucco pipeline threatened to pump gas from Azerbaijan to Vienna, undercutting Russian supplies.

Not since the height of the global financial crisis had Putin seemed so embattled.

Today, things look quite different. Over the following year, the Moscow protests died away. Putin's ratings stabilized in the low 60s, a level many Western leaders would envy. With a mixture of new repressive laws, prosecutions and co-optation tactics, the Kremlin managed to box in and divide its domestic critics.

Valery Gergiev on Russia's anti-gay law
Ukraine MP: We see hand of Putin at work
What Putin thinks of Ukraine protests

So confident did Putin feel by mid-2013 that he could, without losing sleep, allow the opposition activist Alexei Navalny to run for mayor of Moscow (he lost, though with an impressive 27%) and pardon his nemesis, the imprisoned former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, allowing him to leave for Switzerland.

Putin's star has also risen on the international stage. In September, he persuaded al-Assad to pledge to give up his chemical weapons, saving President Barack Obama from a military intervention the U.S. leader clearly dreaded. Al-Assad looks more secure today than he has since protests against his rule began.

By granting asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden, Putin managed -- ironically, given Russia's own record of secrecy and spying -- to place himself on the side of a global movement for greater transparency and respect for citizens' privacy. One example: The New York Times, in a recent editorial, called Snowden's revelations "a great service" and urged Obama to end Snowden's vilification and offer him "a plea bargain or some form of clemency."

In a showdown with the EU over the future of Ukraine in November, Putin again came out on top, persuading Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to reject a trade deal with Europe to which Brussels had committed its prestige. Instead, Yanukovych pledged to deepen his country's trade ties with Russia, prompting furious protests from pro-Europe Ukrainians. As for Gazprom, its sales of gas to Europe rose by 16% in 2013 to a record high. The Nabucco pipeline failed to line up committed gas supplies. According to one of the consortium's partners, as of June the project was "over."

Most of these successes are temporary, and time is not on the Kremlin's side. Fighting continues to rage in Syria, and the destruction of al-Assad's chemical weapons has been painfully slow. Ukraine will sooner or later integrate with Europe. Yanukovych is struggling to stay in power as violence flares nightly in central Kiev. Gazprom's buoyant sales reflected an unusually cold winter in Europe.

At home, the frustrations that fueled the demonstrations two years ago have not gone away, just lost a focus. A major economic deterioration could prompt a new, potentially more consequential wave of protests. Russia's growth rate has been falling steadily, reaching just 1.4% by the end of 2013, the lowest rate of Putin's years as President. And the Kremlin has no serious strategy to restart the economic engines.

For now, Putin still has reason to feel confident. Even Sochi, which could have turned into a political disaster, might well pass off positively for the Kremlin. The advance bad press has lowered expectations so much that the Games will seem something of a success if they merely take place without the stadium collapsing or terrorists exploding bombs in Sochi itself.

The de facto boycott by Western leaders over Russian intolerance toward gays will probably buy Putin a little support at home since most Russians share his discomfort with "nontraditional lifestyles" and do not like outsiders telling them what to do. In a recent poll, 73% agreed the state should ban public displays of homosexuality.

What explains this turnaround?

Putin has benefited more from luck than skill. Even without new repressive measures, the wave of demonstrations was bound to subside, following the natural ebb and flow of protest movements. Those that climax without producing leader turnover tend to lose momentum, though some might reignite months or years later.

In international affairs, Putin profited from the mistakes of the West. Obama, having backed himself into a corner with talk of "red lines" and facing a humiliating veto in Congress, had to smile and accept help on Syria from the leader he had recently taunted for his "slouch." The European Union overplayed its hand in Ukraine, insisting on terms that Yanukovich thought would damage him politically. Putin, offering a bailout with fewer visible strings attached, walked away with the Ukrainian leader's agreement.

One may debate whether the real mistake in the Snowden case was the extent of U.S. spying or the lax security that allowed Snowden to expose it. Either way, it was a U.S. blunder, which landed unexpectedly in Putin's lap.

At some point, Putin's luck is bound to run out. Both at home and abroad, political challenges loom in 2014. Still, as he prepares to greet and congratulate the Olympic athletes, Russia's President is on a roll.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Daniel Treisman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT