Skip to main content

Vladimir Putin's remarkable comeback

By Daniel Treisman
February 3, 2014 -- Updated 1239 GMT (2039 HKT)
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
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT