VLADIMIR PUTIN’S release Friday of his most famous prisoner showed that Western censure can change his calculations. In recent days, President Obama and the presidents of Germany and France announced they would not attend the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, in what was widely interpreted as a protest of Russia’s new anti-gay law. Mr. Putin, no doubt worried that an event on which his regime has lavished more than $50 billion will be tarnished by his ugly human rights record, responded by freeing former oil magnate and opposition political financier Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He also released other prisoners celebrated in the West: two members of the band Pussy Riot and 30 members of Greenpeace.
No doubt the Russian president will be congratulated for this step — though, as the human rights group Freedom House pointed out, Mr. Khodorkovsky never should have been jailed in the first place, much less confined for a decade to a Soviet-style penal colony. At the time of his arrest in 2003, Mr. Khodorkovsky was attempting to turn his Yukos oil company into the first major Russian corporation to adopt Western standards of transparency, and he was nourishing moderate opposition parties and civil-society groups. Mr. Putin’s response was to prosecute the magnate on trumped-up charges and to confiscate his company. When Mr. Khodorkovsky’s sentence ended three years ago, he was subjected to a new and even more Orwellian prosecution.
The release of the prisoners reflects not only Mr. Putin’s anxiety about Sochi but also his strutting confidence that he has succeeded in crushing his opposition. Eighteen months of relentless repression have silenced a broad opposition movement and driven many of its members out of the country. Meanwhile, Mr. Putin has used a toxic campaign against gay rights to position Russia as a conservative power that stands against “so-called tolerance, genderless and infertile,” as he put it in a recent speech.
Until this week, the Obama administration had barely reacted to these offenses. So it must have been a shock to Mr. Putin when the White House, to its credit, announced that the U.S. delegation to Sochi would not be led by Mr. Obama or Vice President Biden but would include tennis legend Billie Jean King, a lesbian.
More pressure on human rights might do still more good, particularly before the Olympics. But the Obama administration is still pulling its punches. This week it was due to report to Congress on the implementation of the Magnitsky Act, which sanctions Russian human rights abusers by withholding U.S. visas and freezing their assets. Administration officials told Congress that they were preparing to add up to 20 officials to the sanctions list, but when the report was issued Friday none was named. A White House spokesperson told us that “the administration is determined to fully implement the Act by making further designations as appropriate.” If that’s the case, why not issue the list already prepared by the State and Treasury departments?