MOSCOW - Boosted by successes on the domestic and international scene, President Vladimir Putin pardoned Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky and punk band Pussy Riot members in a display of strength seen as showing he is Russia's undisputed master.
After a rocky start to his third Kremlin term in 2012, Putin has enjoyed a triumphant end to 2013, with Moscow inspiring a deal that halted US air strikes on Syria and trumping Ukraine's pro-EU protest movement with a bailout package.
Putin's 2012 return to the Kremlin was marred by the biggest rallies against his rule but these have now died down and fiery protest leader Alexei Navalny is effectively sidelined - for the moment - after being given a suspended sentence in a fraud case.
In allowing the freedom of the highest-profile jailed opponents of his rule, Putin may have had in mind Russia's image abroad as it prepares to host the Winter Olympic Games and chair the G8 in 2014.
But like a mediaeval English monarch granting mercy with a flick of the finger or a Roman Emperor sparing the life of a slave gladiator, the releases are above all viewed as a display of sheer power by an autocratic ruler.
"It looks like an act of monarchical mercy offered by Putin at the very moment when he is celebrating foreign policy successes and does not fear this will be seen as a weakness," said Nikolai Petrov, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"Putin feels like victor and in this way is able to demonstrate his supreme power," Petrov added.
Putin's triumphant year-end
The year could hardly have ended better for Putin.
Russia seized the initiative in the Syrian conflict with a proposal to rid the regime of its chemical weapons which warded off the threat of US air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad and allowed Moscow to present itself as a peacemaker.