Yet the most recent protest in Moscow drew modest numbers, oil prices are holding, and Putin's term has another six years to go. Meanwhile, the Russian opposition movement has no clear leaders, no clear organization, and no guiding issues that can appeal to people outside of the educated, urban middle class. As a result, the folks who claimed, not too long ago, that the protests had transformed Russia's political culture are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I know that it is much more comforting to talk about how Putin or Xi Jinping or some other despot is facing impending doom. But the fact remains that many autocrats in the world retain a firm grip on power (sometimes even with American help), and most of them bear little resemblance to the caricature of the knuckle-dragging thug just waiting to be unseated by a couple of college kids conspiring on Facebook. The highly adaptable Hugo Chávez, to name but one, has shown that Twitter makes an excellent tool for populist mobilization. In Iran, the ayatollahs have long since figured out that the Internet is a great tool for organizing their illiberally minded followers. (The Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has apparently just launched his own Facebook page.)
The obstacles facing democrats around the world are hard, but not insurmountable. We have every reason to be optimistic about their success. But I suspect we can do a much better job of supporting them if we stay realistic about the challenges they face.