What is Putin thinking? Four possible answers

December 23, 2013
A pensive Putin (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
A pensive Putin (Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

At the end of last week, Vladimir Putin shocked an awful lot of people by pardoning former oligarch and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  Given how surprising this development was, it begs the question of why?  Here are four possible explanations:

1. The Sochi Effect

In the very near future, Russia will find itself in the center of the international stage with the opening of the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi. Perhaps the simplest explanation for Putin’s pardon of Khodorkovsky – as well as Monday’s news that jailed members of the punk band Pussy Riot were also released as part of a larger amnesty — is that Putin is trying to remove any and all political distractions from the Olympics. As the AP puts it, such moves would be intended to “soothe criticism of Russia’s human rights record.” While the simplest explanation, however, it is not the only one.

2. The Navalny/Ukraine Effect

The Khodorkovsky pardon is of course not the first time this year that Putin has let a potential political rival out of jail unexpectedly.  Earlier this year, blogger and frequent Kremlin critique Aleksei Navalny quite shockingly was released from jail a day after being sentenced in a manner that allowed him to run for – and ultimately lose – the 2013 Moscow mayoral election.  By all accounts, having Navalny participate in these elections gave the race a degree of legitimacy it certainly would have lacked without him, but without costing the Kremlin control over the office.  Perhaps Putin has taken this an indication that more political competition in Russia could actually end up being beneficial for the regime, and that – despite Khodorkovsky’s statement Sunday that he will stay out politics - the decision to pardon him was made with this in mind.  The late political scientist Samuel Huntington long ago suggested that legitimate elections could function as a substitute for street protest among a disgruntled population, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that Khodorkovsky has been released after the outbreak of sustained and unexpected protests next door in Ukraine.

3. The game theory effect

Game theorists have long noted that there are certain strategic environments where the best response is what is known as a “mixed strategy.”  In such cases, players are supposed to assign probabilities to certain actions, and then randomly decide which move to make in accordance with those probabilities. Putin’s early years in office brought about much hand-wringing by analysts as to whether he was at heart a Western-looking modernizer or a creature of the security services, known in Russia as the siloviki.  The way Putin has formed his presidential administration over the years – balancing free-market economists with security-types – has only further enhanced this image.  In his third term, however, he has seemed to lean more to the security side. So perhaps the pardon of Khodorkovsky is yet another play in Putin’s ongoing mixed strategy in games both domestic and international.

4. The Mandela effect

The Sochi Winter Olympics are widely being described as a key part of Putin’s “legacy” (e.g., see here, here, and here).  Like everybody else, Putin recently observed how Nelson Mandela’s legacy was praised throughout the world upon his death.  Putin has been president for a long time in Russia, and may end up being president for many years to come. It would not be surprising if the thought of his legacy has started to creep into his own decision making.  Now Putin has not been known as someone who really cares what the West or international human-rights agencies think about what he considers to be matters of internal Russian policy.  Perhaps — and I really stress perhaps — the experience of watching the world praise Mandela is causing him to rethink this conviction just a bit.

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Henry Farrell | December 23, 2013