Christmas came early for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Greenpeace activists and Pussy Riot punk rock members — all released from jail in December as a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin. But there is more behind Putin's surprise move than festive good cheer.

On the international stage, 2013 was a good year for Putin. He scored diplomatic victories on Syria, the Edward Snowden affair and, most recently, the Ukraine, whose President Viktor Yanukovych presented his country as a gift to Putin, after a brief flirtation with the European Union. Domestically, however, 2013 was a more challenging year for Putin and his retinue.

As Putin marks the 14th anniversary of his first arrival in the Kremlin this month, he is finding Russia increasingly difficult to govern. The Kremlin's dismay at the scale and longevity of protests in Moscow and other cities, following the fraudulent election in December 2011, is forcing Putin to find new ways to shore up his presidency.