No one should confuse these shifts in government policy with vacillation or weakness. Over the past 12 years, the authorities and their proxies have frequently resorted to selective but brutal force to safeguard their interests. Quite a few journalists and activists have been killed for crossing those in power. Make no mistake: If anyone tries to challenge the current rulers' control over Russia's major economic assets in a comprehensive way, things will get nasty very fast.
Let's not forget: Putin and his ilk are not German Social Democrats. They aren't waiting philosophically for someone to come along and tell them to leave office. Given Russian history, they are perfectly justified in assuming that losing power will mean losing their ill-gotten gains, their personal freedom, and perhaps their lives as well. I doubt that they can be persuaded to leave through the power of moral suasion.
But you certainly can't blame educated Russians for wanting to choose the latter path. For their sake, I hope it works. I'm just not optimistic.
I earlier mentioned two numbers worth keeping in mind as Putin's second presidency takes shape. The second is the price of oil -- which, I would argue, is a far more likely agent of change than public demonstrations. Even today, after years of putative reform, Russia's economy remains lopsidedly dependent on petroleum. If the price of oil tanks, all of Putin's economic promises to his people go out the window, and that vast silent majority cannot be counted on to remain quiescent.
So how do Putin's prospects look on that front? Right now Brent crude is trading at around $112, near its lowest point for the year. But that's still healthy enough to keep Russia's economy cruising along for the foreseeable future, and there are plenty of analysts who believe that prices can only go up. And as my FP colleague Steve LeVine recently noted, Putin has just made a series of shrewd business deals designed to keep the black gold flowing. Whether you like him or not, Vladimir Vladimirovich is still a formidable player, and he hasn't lost his mojo yet.