Why Vladimir Putin is WorldViews’ Person of the Year

December 11, 2013

(MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Not everyone was satisfied when Time magazine announced its selection for Person of the Year: Pope Francis. Our colleagues at The Switch argue that the person who actually best meets Time's standard for having "most influenced the news this year" is former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, whom they name as The Switch's Person of the Year.

We here at WorldViews are responsible for a broad but discrete slice of the news: foreign. Within that slice, the person who would seem to have most influenced the news in 2013 is -- drum roll, please -- Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has made himself and his country unusually consequential this year, exerting Russian influence – usually meager – over some of the most important moments in international relations. The world had to take him and his country seriously this year – something that has not often been true since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Most significantly, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have leveraged the Syrian civil war cynically but adroitly, steering the world away from intervention (which Russia opposes) as well as using the conflict to raise Moscow's international clout.

They've deployed Russia's United Nations Security Council veto as well as Russian arms exports to make any substantial Western intervention in the conflict highly unlikely. The Russian duo also seized on September's crisis over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against civilians, suggesting a deal to remove Syria's chemical weapons. This undercut President Obama's threat to launch limited cruise missile strikes on Syria (it also undercut U.S. influence over the conflict) while positioning Russia, for the first time in some time, as the lead power in a major geopolitical issue. More to the point, it had a direct impact on the ground in Syria, both in making foreign military action much less likely and in removing Assad's chemical weapons.

Americans, though, may be most familiar with the Putin-Lavrov duo's work on exploiting l'Affaire Snowden. China passed off the NSA leaker like a hot potato, after which he languished in Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport – and became an unwitting diplomatic pawn. As U.S. leaders demanded Snowden's return and other heads of state declared their support for the fugitive, Putin played them all, teasing them with hints and half-statements about Snowden's fate. It eventually became clear that Snowden would stay in Russia indefinitely – probably the inevitable outcome – but not until Putin had forced a dozen different nations to treat Russia like the great power it once was.

This Russian habit of what has been termed both "geopolitical racketeering" and "foreign policy photobombing" appears likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Russia is already trying to extract something for itself from the ongoing Iranian nuclear negotiations, as I noted in an article highlighting Lavrov's perhaps unique ability for geopolitical trolling.

Of course, Putin's most important role in 2013 has been within the domestic Russian political sphere, where he's further curtailed political freedoms, civil rights and political competition -- all of it to significant, if negative, consequence for Russia and its 144 million citizens. He's done this in part by infusing his increasingly authoritarian rule with a particular flavor of right-leaning nationalism, with elements of xenophobia and social conservatism.

Americans will be most familiar with the January law banning U.S. families from adopting Russian orphans, which played up Russian fears that Americans want to steal and abuse their children, as well as the infamous law banning "gay propaganda." Members of the politically dissident performance art group Pussy Riot were sentenced to years in prison after protesting Putin inside a church. In September, after opposition activist Alexei Navalny ran for Moscow's mayoral office, he found himself sentenced to five years' labor on suspicious-looking corruption charges. The sentence was quickly suspended, but the point was made.

At every turn, Putin has seemed eager to show his defiance of critics internal and external – fights he often wins. This was captured well by his refusal to reconsider the country's controversial anti-gay laws, despite widespread international backlash. That included a campaign to use the forthcoming winter Olympics, to be held in the Russian city of Sochi, as a way to shame or pressure the Kremlin into changing the law. Putin didn't bend and, with the Olympics months away, the campaign for the law's repeal already seems to have lost momentum. He seems to relish the opportunity to defy his opponents, as if every controversy were an opportunity to prove to us all that Russia is his, whether we like it or not.

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Caitlin Dewey · December 11, 2013