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Sochi Watch: Why Tsar Putin Released His Arch-Nemesis

Like any good royal, Vladimir Putin couldn't be bothered to make an act of clemency the main event of his Thursday press conference. Instead, he casually revealed at the end of the four-hour affair that he planned to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former oil tycoon who came to be known as Putin's number one foe.

Respectfully referring to Khodorkovsky by his patronymic name, "Mikhail Borisovich," Putin said that the oligarch had written to him with an appeal for pardon. "He has already spent more than 10 years behind bars, it's a tough punishment. He is citing humanitarian reasons, his mother is ill. Taking all this into account it is possible to make the decision," Putin said.

Less than 24 hours later, Khodorkovsky, who had been serving a ten year sentence for fraud and embezzlement, boarded a chopper for St. Petersburg and was later spirited to Berlin, where he would be reunited with his family.

Putin's shocker of a statement resulted in public relations mayhem in the Khodorkovsky camp. "Regardless of the circumstances of the pardoning (including the possible family reasons), the pardoning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a huge positive step for Russia. Congratulations to everyone who waited so long for this day," Vladimir Karza Murza, senior advisor at the Institute of Modern Russia, a think tank run by Khodorkovsky's son, Pavel, told Foreign Policy by email Thursday.

Many news outlets reported that neither Khodorkovsky's lawyer, nor his family were aware of the pardon request. One of his lawyers, Vadim Klyuvgant told the RAPSI news agency Thursday that Khodorkovsky "did not apply [for a pardon] and we have no information that anyone has applied on his behalf recently."

In a strange twist, his team then backtracked on that statement. "Until his legal team can meet with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, it cannot be commented on whether a request on a pardon was made, by whom and for what reasons," read a statement on Khodorkovsky's web page.

On Friday, Khodorkovsky himself released a statement saying that he asked Putin on Nov. 12 to pardon him "due to [his] family situation" -- a reference to his ailing mother -- and that he was "glad his decision was positive."

As with anything in this case -- or Russian politics in general for that matter -- it can be difficult to distinguish the difference between hard facts and calculated disinformation. With a stellar legal team behind him and deep pockets with which to pay them, why would Khodorkovsky's lawyers ever be confused on such a simple, essential question? Over at the New Republic, Julia Ioffe reports that anonymous reports in the Russian press hinted that the decision to pardon Khodorkovsky, arguably Russia's most prominent political prisoner, was hammered out in private meetings between the former oil magnate and representatives of the security services. That would certainly account for the confusion among Khodorkovsky's legal team, but it may be little more than unfounded speculation.

Regardless of how the deal came about, the move has been widely interpreted as a bid for some positive publicity before next year's Olympic games in Sochi. "He played this card beautifully," British journalist and Russia expert Peter Pomerantsev told Foreign Policy

According to Pomerantsev, Putin's move should be seen as carrying two different messages, the content of which depends on the audience. Internationally, the timing was perfect. "It's a nice thing to do before the Olympics," said Pomerantsev. At home, however, Khodorkovsky's release serves as yet another show of Putin's absolute power. Like a king graciously pardoning his victim, the message he is sending in Russia is one of unrelenting control. By releasing a man once seen as a main rival, he shows that he is no longer fazed by Khodorkovsky. "I broke this man," he seems to be saying, according to Pomerantsev.

But even if Putin would like to spin Khodorkovsky's release as a pure demonstration of his stranglehold on Russian politics, that isn't entirely true. Russia has in recent months come under intense scrutiny for its human rights record, in particular because of a crackdown on its gay minority. That scrutiny has been amplified by the Sochi Olympics, which a litany of world leaders have now declared they won't attend. It's a painful snub that Putin would like to avoid. In the words of Masha Gessen, the release of Khodorkovsky came because "the prospect of standing alone [at Sochi], or only with the president of Ukraine for company, began to look real for the first time." That's a scene the image-conscious Putin would never countenance. As a result, the argument goes, he moved to release Khodorkovsky and win some favorable headlines in the Western media.

That calculation may have been spurred in part by the Obama administration's decision to send an insultingly low-profile delegation to Sochi, which will be headed by a former director of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. No cabinet level official will be attending, and President Obama will be staying away. (It does include a handful of prominent gay athletes in defiance of Russia's anti-LGBT laws.) French President Francois Hollande won't be in attendance either, and the guest list of heads of state will now be more notable for who will be in attendance rather than those who choose to stay away.

So who would want to stand next to Putin on the dais? The Russian president would like to make that prospect slightly more appetizing, which may have led him to release the jailed oil baron. The timing indeed seemed auspicious -- but then, Putin never appeared to care all that much what the Western world thought about him. "When it comes to certain core things, especially things on which the West pressures him, Putin will demonstrably, theatrically not give a fuck," Ioffe writes. For an example of that mentality, look no further than Syria and Edward Snowden.

Arguing that the release of Khodorkovsky was a direct result of Obama's decision not to watch a hockey match or a bobsled competition is undoubtedly a stretch. But Putin is not Kim Jong Un -- a dictator isolated from the rest of the world with few friends aside from Dennis Rodman. He is a leader who has to deal with his partners around the world and one that deeply cares about his image.

One look at the photos of Putin shirtless astride a horse, tells you all you need to know. This is a man who wants to project a certain image to Russia and the world -- one of strength, virility, and independence.

Having all your most popular friends refuse to come to your party doesn't mesh with that image.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Silicon Valley Scores Victory Against the Surveillance State

With the release of a highly anticipated report on U.S. intelligence practices, American technology executives appear to have scored a hard-fought victory. That report contains a set of recommendations that seem to incorporate the concerns of tech and business executives who have repeatedly argued that their reputations and bottom lines are at stake in the ongoing debate over how to reform intelligence gathering in the aftermath of Edward Snowden's revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency.

Among other things, the report recommends that the government publish data on how frequently it compels companies to provide information about their users. It also recommends that companies be allowed to release such data and the frequency with which they comply with government demands. The panel also argued that the intelligence agencies should not be allowed to install so-called backdoors in software that allows intelligence agencies to clandestinely tap into software and systems. Additionally, the panel argued that the government should not compromise encryption technology, allowing it to unscramble protected communications.

Taken together, the panel appears to have incorporated the concerns of business executives who worry that users -- especially abroad -- may be scared away from their products amid fears that they may be compromised by the NSA. On Tuesday, President Obama met with a group of technology executives who pressed him for an explanation on the extent of NSA penetration of their system. Their message to the president, in the words of an industry insider quoted by the Washington Post: "What the hell are you doing? Are you really hacking into the infrastructure of American companies overseas? The same American companies that cooperate with your lawful orders and spend a lot of money to comply with them to facilitate your intelligence collection?"

In unmasking the NSA, Snowden didn't just deeply embarrass the U.S. intelligence community. He also rattled technology executives in Silicon Valley. In setting up a veritable surveillance empire, the NSA has relied on major U.S. technology and telecommunications companies to gain access to user data, tap into fiber-optic cables, and plumb the reaches the Internet. In effect, the NSA has made it a goal to collect any and all data it thinks might be useful in protecting U.S. national security. In doing so, it has enlisted U.S. industry as an ally. Often they didn't sign up willingly and were compelled to cooperate by court order.

But in the public relations catastrophe that has ensued that is a distinction without a difference. To clients and users around the world, many American companies are now seen as tainted by their association with the NSA. And that may be having a serious impact on their bottom lines. Tech giant Cisco claims that its sales have suffered internationally as a result of the Snowden revelations, and on Wednesday, Brazil announced that it would purchase 36 Swedish fighter jets instead of Boeing's F-18, costing the American defense contractor some $4 billion. The Snowden revelations were cited as a key factor in Brasilia's decision to snub Boeing, which had been seen as a front runner to secure what had been described as the most lucrative defense contract in the developing world. That may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The recommendations in Wednesday's report include a series of proposed reforms that would begin to address the concerns of American businesses who argue that aggressive intelligence gathering activities could scare away potential clients and customers.

A group of eight prominent tech companies laid out their concerns in a letter on Monday. "We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," the letter, which was signed by Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo, AOL, and Twitter, said. "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual -- rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish."

Telecom companies such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have been at the center of Snowden's revelations about American intelligence gathering, and some of those companies are now facing legal battles in which angry users are compelling them to reveal the extent of their cooperation with the U.S. government. According to one of the first reports in the Snowden saga, Verizon is handing over its users' call records in bulk at the behest of the U.S. government. But as a result of the stringent security requirements of the laws that compel the company to do so, Verizon has been largely unable to detail the extent of its cooperation with the NSA. Responding to such concerns, Wednesday's report argues that companies compelled to reveal user information should be able to "disclose on a periodic basis general information about the number of such orders they have received, the number they have complied with, the general categories of information they have produced, and the number of users whose information they have produced in each category." The government, the report argues, should adopt similar disclosure requirements for the requests it issues. If adopted, the rule change would be a major victory for tech companies.

The report -- authored by Richard Clarke, a veteran counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush White Houses; Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the CIA; Cass Sunstein, a former Obama administration official and Harvard Law School professor; Peter Swire, an expert in privacy law at the Georgia School of Technology; and Geoffrey Stone, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago -- broadly comports with a brewing effort in the Senate to pass legislation that would overhaul U.S. intelligence practices. Under legislation championed by Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, the NSA would no longer be allowed to collect on a mass-scale the communications logs of Americans and would adopt disclosure requirements similar to those contained in the report. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Obama will be departing for Christmas vacation to Hawaii next week and is said to be bringing the report with him. He plans to consider its recommendations and return in January to make a decision on which of them to adopt. For now, the White House is staying mum on how it plans to approach the issue. "As a general matter, we're going to take the next several weeks to review the Review Group's report," Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, wrote in an email.

The ball is now in the president's court. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has been handed a powerful argument in their effort to distance themselves from the NSA.

Whether Obama will accept that argument remains to be seen.

John Hudson contributed to the reporting of this story.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images