We can all sleep more safely. The end of the world will not happen on December 20 2012 , or even for another 4.5bn years, because Vladimir Putin has assured us that it won’t. Collective jitters produced by the end of the Mayan calendar have been good business for the suppliers of candles, matches, salt and torches in some parts of Russia, even though, as one psychiatrist noted, what happens every day can be a lot scarier than Armageddon.
Take, for instance, Mr Putin’s support for a ban on Americans adopting Russian children. This was a measure named after the horrific case of a Russian toddler who died of heatstroke in Virginia after his adoptive American father left him in a car for nine hours. The ban, however, was not born out of any wish to protect orphans. It was written out of anger. It was one of the responses to a law signed by Barack Obama named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who died in prison after trying to expose a government tax fraud. The Magnitsky law requires the US administration to compile a list of Russian citizens accused of human rights abuses, including those involved in Magnitsky’s case, and bar them from travelling to the US. The measure is designed to hit officials personally and where it hurts them most – to prevent them travelling to and from their luxury pads in New Jersey and accessing their copious bank accounts there. Many say, with some justice, that the same measure should apply to that greatest money-laundering centre of all – London.
For a long time, Mr Obama resisted pressure to pass the Magnitsky law on the grounds that it was too political, and that the US national interest was better served in keeping the “reset” of the US-Russian relations on track. He has now reluctantly shelved this policy. His hopes were based, perhaps naively, on Dmitry Medvedev, a man who disappointed many. Now his political star has crashed, so too have Washington’s hopes that Russia will undertake democratic reform under Mr Putin. What follows will be a more traditionally hard-nosed issue-by-issue approach. The mood is also darkening over EU-Russian relations, which have become tangled in disputes over visas, trade and energy. Mr Putin’s meeting with EU leaders will not be eased by a motion passed by the European parliament demanding the end of politically motivated prosecutions, arrests and detentions.
Mr Putin can brush all this off. If he can hold more than 1,000 journalists at bay for over four and a half hours in a Moscow conference centre, as he did on Wednesday, he will doubtless persuade himself that he can power on at the helm for the decade to come. However, he has made himself a unique hostage to fortune. Another Kursk, another national disaster, and his grip will loosen. It has already.