This year Time Magazine named the brave health workers and first responders who have been fighting the Ebola outbreak as its “Person of the Year.” One can understand why. These people are selflessly trying to fight one of the scariest viruses known to the human race, and have been doing it while also dealing with the stigma of having been exposed to the virus after returning home.
Ebola fighters are heroes, and everyone wants to honor heroes.
But Time’s “Person of the Year” is about the most important person, not the best person, and this person is often not a hero. While Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have won the award, so have Adolf Hitler and Ayatollah Khomeini. Time Magazine, however, has sometimes purposefully avoided giving the award to persons they view as villainous, like when in 2001 Osama Bin Laden or the other masterminds of the 9/11 attacks did not receive the award (though perhaps they were the obvious choice) but New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was given it instead for holding his city together in the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack on American soil.
Sometimes Time gives the award to a group of people, especially when one single person is not appropriate. Many would argue that this year, however, one man was a clear candidate: Vladimir Putin.
2014 has been a long and historic year for Russia. It started with a bang — the Sochi Winter Olympics. The most expensive Olympics ever held, Sochi was a perfect symbol for Vladimir Putin’s rule. On one hand, the Olympic Games were the pinnacle of Kremlin-style corruption on an astonishing scale. On the other, they showed the lengths that Vladimir Putin was willing to go in order to prove to the global community his greatness and Russia’s status as a first-world power.
In short, Sochi should have been a huge victory for Putin. But a group of protesters in Kiev managed to snatch Putin’s win right out of his hands.
For the previous year Putin had worked hard to pressure the Ukrainian government, and other former Soviet states, into turning away from the European Union in favor of the Russian alternative, the Customs Union, using both trade war and coercion. When Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych finally decided not to sign the EU association agreement, protesters took to the streets in Kiev’s Maidan Square. They never left, and the protests exploded in February, right at the height of the Sochi Olympics, stealing much of Putin’s thunder.
What happened next unraveled the plan that Putin has hoped to achieve this year. If Sochi was supposed to make Russia look like a 21st century leader of a rising democracy, his actions in Ukraine made him look like a 20th century dictator of a failing empire. First he invaded Crimea, then annexed the peninsula, then helped spread insurgency in eastern Ukraine. When that insurgency was failing, he supplied them with more powerful weapons, resulting in the shooting down of a civilian airliner. When that wasn’t enough, he invaded Ukraine in August.
Domestically, Putin has overseen the destruction of the free press and has used electoral fraud and/or the Russia’s justice’ system to shut down every political opponent he has faced. The Advocate, a LGBT rights magazine, named Putin Person of the Year because of his crackdown against homosexuals:
— James Miller (@MillerMENA) November 7, 2014
Meanwhile, the Russian economy has been hemorrhaging investors and the ruble has been plunging. Putin’s soaring plans for 2014 have fallen apart.
But his actions have driven every step of what has happened in 2014, even, ironically, the protest movement. If it were not for Russia’s pressure on Yanukovych, he may have signed the EU association agreement, Euromaidan may never have happened, and Yanukovych may still be in power. If it were not for Russia’s actions after that, the West would not think of Russia as an adversary in a new Cold War.
The world is a different place at the end of 2014 than it was at the start of the year, and Vladimir Putin is a key reason why this is so.
Time Magazine also recognized this today, naming Putin, “The Imperialist,” as a runner-up for Person of the Year. Simon Shuster has written Time’s explanation on why Putin was nominated for the award:
His decision in March to invade and then annex the region of Crimea from Ukraine marked the first growth of Russia’s dominions since the fall of the Soviet Union. Though the West remembers that event as a victory for freedom, the Soviet collapse was a catastrophe to Putin and many of his compatriots. “Millions of Russians went to sleep in one country and awoke in another,” Putin said in a speech at the Kremlin palace in March. Overnight, it seemed, Russia was transformed from a superpower into a corrupt petrostate, a fallen empire that Sergey Brin, the Russian émigré turned Google co-founder, once derided as “Nigeria with snow.”
Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader who tried to reform his country only to dismantle it in 1991, still broods over the loss. “Russia was simply pushed aside, pushed out of politics, made to feel like some kind of backwater,” he tells TIME in the Moscow office where he once received American dignitaries as equals if not exactly friends. “In everything it was America calling the shots!” But with the conquest of Crimea, a derelict peninsula about the size of Massachusetts, Putin at last restored a scrap of Russia’s honor, says Gorbachev, by “acting on his own,” unbound by the constraints of U.S. supremacy and the table manners of international law.
2015 will start with Russia in a very different place than where it started in 2014. A year ago some analysts were expecting Russia’s economy to flat-line, but next year a flat economy looks optimistic since Russia’s economy is hurting, the ruble is in free fall, and the price of oil which even when riding high struggled to keep the Kremlin’s coffers full has now plummeted. Last year he was struggling to keep Ukraine as an economic ally, but now he has lost most of Ukraine completely and is struggling to maintain his war effort there while simultaneously dealing with a collapsing economy. Putin’s answers to all of these problems remains unknown.
If many eyes were on Putin a year ago, dramatically more will be watching to see what he does in 2015. And while many things can happen in 365 days, it’s a safe bet that this time next year Putin may once again be a nominee for Person of the Year.