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Russia's Putin Enters New Year as Powerful as Ever

MOSCOW—During the course of 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin took bold moves to cement his power at home and extend his nearly two decades in power, a likely bellwether for next year, when the Kremlin leader could squelch remaining domestic opposition and reinforce Russia’s influence abroad.

A controversial constitutional amendment approved in the summer allows Mr. Putin to potentially remain in power until 2036. Earlier this month, the Russian president signed legislation expanding immunity for former presidents from prosecution and allowing ex-Kremlin leaders to become senators for life in Russia’s Parliament once they leave office.

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Mr. Putin visited a polling station at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow on July 1 to vote in the 2020 Russian constitutional referendum.

Photo: Alexei Druzhinin/tass/Zuma Press

He backed greater restrictions on the internet and made it harder to hold political protests. On Friday, Russian lawmakers approved a bill the Kremlin has supported designating individuals and groups that conduct political activity and receive funds from abroad as “foreign agents,” subjecting them to greater restrictions.

Even as Mr. Putin keeps Russians guessing about his plans for the end of his current term in 2024, these moves show the Kremlin is preparing to defend itself from threats to its power, analysts said.

“Next year, Putin enters as a brutal, not benevolent, autocrat, ready to isolate Russia to an even greater extent,” said Andrei Kolesnikov,  an expert on Russian domestic policy at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “And the more challenges to his regime, the tougher and more ‘sovereign’ he is. No signs of even symbolic liberalization.”

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People demonstrated in support of Khabarovsk region’s governor Sergei Furgal, with one poster on the right saying, ‘Putin lost my trust,’ in Khabarovsk in July.

Photo: Igor Volkov/Associated Press

The adoption in July of changes to the nation’s 1990s-era constitution marked a pivotal moment for the Russian leader. It reflects a belief in the Kremlin that Mr. Putin enjoys popular support for an extension of his power, despite polls showing an erosion of enthusiasm for his leadership, said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, an independent political analysis firm.

“He could finally realize his dream to create a real Putin regime with his own constitution and system,” she said.

Even as Mr. Putin moved to shore up his power this year, dissent has simmered. Massive protests in the Far East city of Khabarovsk in July over the arrest of a popular regional governor quickly morphed into an expression of growing dissatisfaction over declining incomes, shoddy public services, including health care as the country was hit by the coronavirus, and Mr. Putin’s rule.

On Saturday, Russia recorded 29,258 new coronavirus cases, according to Russian government data, bringing the total nationwide infections to just over three million—the world’s fourth-largest caseload after the U.S., India and Brazil.

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Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny took part in a video hearing by the European Parliament Foreign Affairs committee in Brussels on Nov. 27.

Photo: olivier hoslet/Shutterstock

Mr. Putin waited out the demonstrators, and crowds have since dissipated. But the anger reflects a divide between the Kremlin and average Russians.

“The gap between the Kremlin and society is widening,” Mr. Kolesnikov said.

Russia’s most prominent opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, has sought to capitalize on public frustration, pursuing investigations into allegations of government corruption and excess, and helping organize anti-Kremlin voting strategies in regional elections.

But in August, Mr. Navalny fell ill after being exposed to what European doctors said was exposure to the nerve agent Novichok—a substance only state actors could have had access to, analysts and intelligence officials have said.

Mr. Navalny and his supporters believe the Kremlin masterminded the failed plot to assassinate him. Moscow has denied any involvement. Mr. Putin said earlier this month that if Russian intelligence agents had wanted to kill Mr. Navalny, “we would have finished the job.”

The European Union imposed sanctions on members of Mr. Putin’s inner circle in response. Russia responded in kind.

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Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Mr. Putin during their meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, on Sept. 14.

Photo: Kremlin/EPA/Shutterstock

“What I see is that the regime has lost any ability to compromise, to tolerate any critics, and it has lost the ability to deal with any political risks in a peaceful manner,” Ms. Stanovaya said. “The only way it knows how to behave is to use repression.”

In the coming year, the Kremlin could further cow Russia’s so-called systemic opposition, or opposition groups and political parties tolerated by the government. Meanwhile, opposition groups such as the one Mr. Navalny leads will be suppressed—or possibly destroyed, analysts say.

The Kremlin has dismissed claims that it seeks to stifle dissent. In a March interview with the state news agency, TASS, Mr. Putin said opposing voices were essential.

“There has always been and always will be a certain part of society in any country that disagrees with the authorities in power,” the Russian leader said. “And it is very good that such people exist.”

In the global arena this year, Mr. Putin extended a political lifeline to Belarus’s beleaguered president, Alexander Lukashenko, who since a flawed Aug. 9 presidential vote has faced protests demanding he step down. The Russian leader committed to military and financial backing for his Belarusian counterpart.

Mr. Putin also brokered a peace deal in November between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The agreement buttresses the Kremlin’s status as a regional power broker and ensures its leverage over both countries. Russia already had a military base in Armenia, with which it also shares economic ties, but the peace deal places Russian forces in Azerbaijan for the first time.

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A Russian soldier outside the town of Stepanakert in the Nagorno-Karabakh region on Nov. 29.

Photo: karen minasyan/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Most former Soviet states “are our allies,” Mr. Putin told his national security council in August. “Our interests coincide in many ways, both economically and politically. This is undoubtedly one of our foreign policy priorities.”

In an interview, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this year’s crises, as well as Western sanctions and a “continuing unfriendly environment,” required decisive action by Moscow.

The crises “demanded toughness from the president, speed of decision-making,” he said. “On the whole, of course, we’re convinced that the main task was to maintain stability in all its directions [and] this was preserved.”

Russia has struck deals to sell its Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to other countries, in what analysts have said could allow Moscow to exert soft power over receiving nations, particularly in South America and the Middle East.

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A shipment of 300,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine arrived in Buenos Aires on Thursday from Russia.

Photo: esteban collazo/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Next year, Mr. Putin could demand returns on the help he has extended, analysts said. He is likely to demand that Mr. Lukashenko cede to the Kremlin’s longstanding efforts to draw its smaller neighbor more tightly into its orbit. The Armenian and Azeri governments will likely be more deferential to Russia, since they depend on Mr. Putin to stop a resumption of fighting in the South Caucasus.

This year’s tensions with the West are likely to continue, particularly with the arrival of the Biden administration. This month’s revelations of a suspected Russian cyberattack on the U.S. federal government that breached at least six cabinet-level departments further dented relations between Moscow and Washington.

But antagonism toward the West could work to Mr. Putin’s advantage at home, according to his supporters.

The perception is that “if Putin was bad for Russia, he would not have been attacked like that,” said Sergey Markov, the pro-Kremlin director of the Institute for Political Studies in Moscow. “The more the enemy rages, the further we go along the road to a brighter future. For Putin, there is nothing special here. [It is] a natural process of attacks against a successful Russian president.”

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A live broadcast of the annual end-of-year news conference by Mr. Putin on a screen installed on the facade of a hotel in Moscow on Dec. 17.

Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/tass/Zuma Press

Write to Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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