At his annual press conference last Thursday, a beatific Vladimir Putin said his re-election victory and the soccer World Cup held in Russia were the highlights of 2018. That's a remarkably upbeat assessment of a year that was by no means one of the Russian president's best.

He won another term in March with 77 percent of the vote, but, as in every election in the Putin era, researchers have found statistical evidence of vote-rigging. Although the fraud worked for Putin, it failed to produce results in a series of gubernatorial elections this year. Even though the Kremlin managed to reassert control over key regions such as the Maritime Territory in the Far East, voters are finding it easier to resist manipulation and cheating.

The discontent developed in large part because of Putin's decision to raise the retirement age to 63 from 55 for women and to 65 from 60 for men, a step that successive Russian governments haven't had the courage to take since the Soviet Union's collapse. The president made the change with all the accumulated skill of his 18 years in power, letting the government announce the move during the early dopamine rush of the World Cup, letting critics lay out their arguments and then making some token concessions. Still, that didn't help: His popularity dropped sharply from the levels he had enjoyed since Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014; it hasn't recovered.