Putin’s first year back in office as president was characterized by a largely successful effort to stifle the protest movement. Opposition leaders were jailed, and nongovernmental organizations that received funding from abroad were labeled as “foreign agents.” Tensions with the United States flared in June 2013, when U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden sought refuge in Russia after revealing the existence of a number of secret NSA programs. Snowden was allowed to remain in Russia on the condition that, in the words of Putin, he stop “bringing harm to our American partners.” After chemical weapons attacks outside Damascus in August 2013, the U.S. made the case for military intervention in the Syrian Civil War. In an editorial published in The New York Times, Putin urged restraint, and U.S. and Russian officials brokered a deal whereby Syria’s chemical weapons supply would be destroyed.
Putin commemorated the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the post-Soviet constitution in December 2013 by ordering the release of some 25,000 individuals from Russian prisons. In a separate move, he granted a pardon to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of the Yukos oil conglomerate who had been imprisoned for more than a decade on charges that many outside Russia claimed were politically motivated.
In February 2014, when the government of Ukrainian Pres. Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown after months of sustained protests, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Refusing to recognize the interim government in Kiev as legitimate, Putin requested parliamentary approval to dispatch troops to Ukraine to safeguard Russian interests. By early March 2014 Russian troops and pro-Russian paramilitary groups had effectively taken control of Crimea, a Ukrainian autonomous republic whose population was predominantly ethnic Russian. In a popular referendum held on March 16, residents of the Crimea voted to join Russia, and Western governments introduced a series of travel bans and asset freezes against members of Putin’s inner circle. On March 18 Putin, stating that the Crimea had always been part of Russia, signed a treaty incorporating the peninsula into the Russian Federation. Over subsequent days still more of Putin’s political allies were targeted with economic sanctions by the U.S. and the EU. After ratification of the treaty by both houses of the Russian parliament, on March 21 Putin signed legislation that formalized the Russian annexation of Crimea.
In April 2014, groups of unidentified gunmen outfitted with Russian equipment seized government buildings throughout southeastern Ukraine, sparking an armed conflict with the government in Kiev. Putin referred to the region as Novorossiya (“New Russia”), evoking claims from the imperial era, and, although all signs pointed to direct Russian involvement in the insurgency, Putin steadfastly denied having a hand in the fighting. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, carrying 298 people, crashed in eastern Ukraine, and overwhelming evidence indicated that it had been shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile fired from rebel-controlled territory. Western countries responded by tightening the sanctions regime, and those measures, combined with plummeting oil prices, sent the Russian economy into a tailspin. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) estimated that more than 1,000 Russian troops were actively fighting inside Ukraine when Russian and Ukrainian leaders met for cease-fire talks in Minsk, Belarus, on September 5. The cease-fire slowed, but did not stop, the violence, and pro-Russian rebels spent the next several months pushing back Ukrainian government forces.
On February 12, 2015, Putin met with other world leaders in Minsk to approve a 12-point peace plan aimed at ending the fighting in Ukraine. Although fighting slowed for a period, the conflict picked up again in the spring, and by September 2015 the United Nations (UN) estimated that some 8,000 people had been killed and 1.5 million had been displaced as a result of the fighting. On September 28, 2015, in an address before the UN General Assembly, Putin presented his vision of Russia as a world power, capable of projecting its influence abroad, while painting the United States and NATO as threats to global security. Two days later Russia became an active participant in the Syrian Civil War, when Russian aircraft struck targets near the cities of Homs and Hama. Although Russian defense officials stated that the air strikes were intended to target troops and matériel belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the actual focus of the attacks seemed to have been on opponents of Syrian president and Russian ally Bashar al-Assad.