A 2005 scene from one of the trials Mikhail Khodorkovsky faced during his decade of imprisonment. (Tatyana Makeyeva/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pardoned yet another high-profile political prisoner this week, announcing that former oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky would be released after more than a decade in prison. Earlier this week, Russia also announced it would release Greenpeace activists who'd been jailed for protesting near a Russian oil rig, as well as members of the performance art group Pussy Riot who'd been jailed after protesting Putin in a Moscow church.

Quick background: Khodorkovsky's 2003 arrest has been broadly understood as punishment for getting involved in politics. One of Putin's major initiatives on taking office was to reduce the influence of Russia's very powerful oligarchs, something he did, in part, by forcing Khodorkovsky into a long and difficult prison sentence.

So why is Putin doing it? Well, let's look at what these pardoned prisoners have in common: they are all pretty famous and are well-known particularly in the West. This might sound obvious, but it's worth noting that Putin may be pardoning Khodorkovsky et al. for the sake of appearances and not because he is actually interested in softening Russia's treatment of political prisoners.


It's not clear that Putin actually stands to lose very much with these pardons. After all, if the primary purpose of political arrests is to shape Russian politics, then the imprisonments of Khodorkovsky and the Pussy Riot members have likely served their purpose. Russia's oligarchs got the warning loud and clear: don't cross Putin, don't go into politics. Russian civil society has a sense, from the Pussy Riot arrests, where the red lines lie. The political purpose of the Greenpeace arrests was never as obvious to me – a warning to foreign NGOs, perhaps – but it's hard to imagine that the message was lost on its intended targets, if there were any.

The upside for Putin here is considerably clearer. With the Winter Olympics coming up, to be held in the Russian city of Sochi, Western criticism of Russian human and political rights was becoming a big international issue. President Obama will not attend the Olympic Games, sending instead a lower-level official as the U.S. representative. Obama's also sending two prominent and openly gay American athletes, Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow, presumably to implicitly criticize Russia's recent anti-gay laws. By making this high-profile concession to Western human-rights demands, Putin may well be hoping to undercut the planned diplomatic and commercial boycotts of Sochi.


What's most clever is that these largely symbolic gestures may actually make it easier for Putin to avoid making more substantive changes. International rights groups have spent a lot of energy drawing international attention to Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot both because their cases were important in themselves but also because their cases were symbolic of Russia's larger issues. Now rights groups can't really point to those cases anymore. By removing these sources of criticism, and by diverting attention from Russia's political imprisonments to its political pardons, Putin may actually make it easier for the Russian government practices that created these prisoners in the first place to continue.