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For Russia's President, A Year Of Costly Triumphs

SIEGEL: For Russian President Vladimir Putin, it has been a year of costly triumphs. His public approval rating soared after he staged a lavish Winter Olympics and then seized the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. But 2014 is ending on a bitter note for Putin as Russia faces a deep recession and international isolation. NPR's Corey Flintoff has more from Moscow.

FLINTOFF: The first big event of Putin's year was the $51 billion extravaganza of the Winter Games in Sochi. He spoke about it to Russian athletes.


PUTIN: (Through translator) It was a good opportunity to show the rest of the world that Russia is a very friendly country that knows how to welcome people.

FLINTOFF: In fact, Russia came under scathing criticism for its recent passage of a law cracking down on gay rights. Many of the world's most powerful leaders, including President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, chose not to attend the opening ceremony.

One head of state who did attend was then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych whose country had been in turmoil for months over his decision not to go through with a promised association with the European Union. Just two weeks after his visit to Sochi, Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia. Soon, well-armed men began seizing control of key buildings in Crimea, Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula. The men wore Russian-style military uniforms without insignia. A Russian interviewer asked Putin at the time whether the uniforms meant the men were Russian troops.


PUTIN: (Through translator) You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Through translator) But were they Russian soldiers or not?

PUTIN: (Through translator) Those were local self-defense units.

FLINTOFF: In March, Russia annexed the region despite protests from Ukraine's new government and condemnation from the United States and the European Union. Putin later acknowledged that the troops were, in fact, Russian and claimed that Moscow had never tried to hide that fact. In a speech that month, Putin hinted that Russian action in Ukraine could go much further.


PUTIN: (Through translator) Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means.

FLINTOFF: In Russia, the seizure of Crimea was a triumph for Putin, whose popularity shot above 80 percent. But it marked a breakdown in relations with the West as the United States and the European Union announced increasingly stringent sanctions on Russian banks, businesses and figures from Putin's inner circle.

Throughout the summer, Russian-backed separatists fought government troops in eastern Ukraine, seeking to establish independent republics there. When the two sides declared a shaky cease-fire in September, President Obama told a NATO summit in Wales that it was a sign that Western pressure was working.


OBAMA: The only reason that we're seeing this cease-fire at this moment is because of both the sanctions that have already been applied and the threat of further sanctions, which are having a real impact on the Russian economy and have isolated Russia in a way that we have not seen in a very long time.

FLINTOFF: Russian finance officials have acknowledged that sanctions could cost the country's economy as much $40 billion next year. But they insist that Russia's financial reserves will cushion the impact. To some extent, they have. But the world was already feeling a shock that would affect Russia far more - a steep drop in world oil prices.

The drop sapped the country's oil-dependent economy and its currency, the ruble, which has lost 40 percent of its value in the past year. The country's top financial officials have said that Russia is headed into a deep recession.

Increasingly, Russia's leader has tended to blame other countries, especially the United States, for his problems. At a speech last week, Putin portrayed Russia as the victim of a Western conspiracy.


PUTIN: (Through translator) Frank statements are being made to the effect that Russia should pay dearly for its independent stance for Crimea and, it sometimes seems, for merely existing.

FLINTOFF: However Putin's next year may begin, it's hard to imagine that it will involve any immediate reduction in the tensions that flared so high in 2014. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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