Jailed Russian former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in December 2010. (Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that he intends to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his country’s most famous political prisoner, in a broad amnesty that comes just weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The amnesty is expected to free hundreds of prisoners, including two Pussy Riot performers and others, and Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon and one of Putin’s most despised enemies. Each case, starting with Khodorkovsky’s 10 years ago, became emblematic of Putin’s intention to impose absolute control over his country, its courts and its powerful billionaires.

Their proposed release sends a strong and unexpected message to the West.

“It’s about Sochi and his image,” said Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. “He’s demonstrating he’s in control and not running scared.”

Putin has made the Olympics, which open Feb. 7, a point of personal pride, an opportunity to show the world a modern Russia created by his force of will. But as he has imposed increasingly repressive measures to consolidate his authority, he has antagonized the United States and other countries, which have grown more critical about limits on gay rights and the jailing of opponents. In recent days, more and more high-level international officials have announced their intention to stay away from Sochi.

The amnesty offers the West an unforeseen opportunity to mend deteriorating relations with Russia, said Rojansky, a longtime Russia scholar. “You have to welcome it and demonstrate for the Russian people that you take this seriously,” he said. “It’s very cynical, it’s very smart, and it’s very Putin.”

Khodorkovsky, once the fabulously wealthy founder of the Yukos oil corporation, has been behind bars since 2003, when he was arrested at gunpoint in Siberia on charges of fraud and tax evasion. In Russia, where the courts regularly take orders directly from political authorities, the case was widely seen as a warning from Putin. He would tolerate no challenge, and anyone who dared to defy him could expect to share the fate of Khodorkovsky, who had angered Putin by financing political opposition to him.

After a news conference Thursday, Putin told reporters that he planned to sign an order pardoning Khodorkovsky “in the nearest time.” Khodorkovsky has served 10 years in jail and was due out in August. “It’s a serious term,” Putin said.

Even as the amnesty was being prepared, it appeared that Khodorkovsky would not be included. He has faced two trials. The first, in which he was found guilty of tax evasion and fraud in 2005, was followed by a trial in 2010 in which he was accused of stealing all of the oil produced at Yukos during the years he served as head of the company. Khodorkovsky has consistently denied those charges.

Over the past few weeks, senior Russian lawmakers have indicated that a fresh case was being prepared against Khodorkovsky that could preclude his release in 2014.

However, before announcing plans to pardon Khodorkovsky on Thursday, Putin said a third case against the prisoner was unlikely to materialize.

“I do not understand at all where the case is. I have heard that they talk about it, but for now I do not see any threats for anyone there,” Putin said at the news conference. 

Explaining the decision to release Khodorkovsky, Putin said the jailed tycoon had written a letter appealing for clemency, saying that his mother was ill. 

However, Vadim Klyuvgant, an attorney for Khodorkovsky, was unable to confirm that his client had asked for a pardon. “We don’t have this information, although we’ve received a number of pardon appeals on his behalf from other people over the years,” he said. 

According to the Russian constitution, the president has the power to pardon prisoners without first receiving an appeal for clemency, Klyuvgant told the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy.  

Khodorkovsky’s mother, Marina Khodorkovsky, said she had not seen her son since July and had received no information that he planned to appeal for clemency. “He needs to be released — his children and even grandchildren grew up without him. Only someone who spent 10 years in prison can judge his decisions,” she told the Interfax news agency.

Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, indicated that Khodorkovsky had admitted wrongdoing in a letter to the Russian president.

“His amnesty request to the president has been submitted. If he is asking to be pardoned, this means he is admitting guilt,” Peskov told Interfax.

The oligarch who stood firm

Khodorkovsky was one of the first generation of Russian oligarchs who parlayed close ties with the Kremlin to win lucrative assets during controversial privatizations in the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell apart.

These men, who had grown up in a political climate in which private wealth was taboo, seized the opportunity to build vast oil, metals and banking empires that underpinned Russia’s economy. Extremely rich and politically influential, the oligarchs were resented by many ordinary Russians, who saw them as no more than robber barons.

Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first president, looked to the oligarchy for support and largely turned a blind eye to the often bloody battles between rival groups competing for the crown jewels of the economy.

When Putin came to power in 2000, he moved to rein in the oligarchs and reassert state control over Russia’s strategic natural resources. Some oligarchs fled in the early Putin years, sensing that the game was up.

But oil prices were soaring, and Khodorkovsky, who had built Yukos into Russia’s biggest oil producer, decided to challenge Putin.

Without seeking Kremlin approval, Yukos began negotiating a strategic tie-up with Exxon and planning to build a privately owned oil export pipeline to China. Khodorkovsky also turned to philanthropy and began funding liberal and opposition groups, which angered Putin.

After Khodorkovsky was arrested, Yukos was dismantled and sold off at bankruptcy auctions. Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, was the main beneficiary of the sales. 

Amnesty decision

Putin announced the decision to pardon Khodorkovsky one day after Russia’s parliament approved an amnesty clearing the way for the early release of hundreds of prisoners. 

Speaking after the news conference, Putin confirmed that the amnesty would apply to two members of the Pussy Riot punk band and 30 Greenpeace activists who are awaiting trial on bail in Russia after staging an offshore protest against Arctic drilling. 

In a dramatic development, three of the defendants in the Bolotnaya case were released Thursday in a Moscow courtroom, where they were on trial for participating in mass riots at an anti-government rally last year. 

In all, 27 Russians have been charged in connection with the disturbances that took place on the eve of Putin’s inauguration to a third term in May 2012. Cases against 12 have gone to trial.