The Russian leader’s popularity plummeted as people came to terms with the prospect of 12 more years of his rule. That popularity has never bounced back. Russians began to describe Putin as the modern incarnation of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. A Photoshopped image of an aged-looking Putin dressed in one of Brezhnev’s old uniforms went viral. When two months later Russia’s Duma elections were clumsily rigged—again, videos of ballot stuffing and other violations quickly spread online—disgust with Putin and the regime reached a tipping point. That’s when tens of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow, chanting, “Russia without Putin!”

What we have seen of Putin in 2012 is nothing like the strong, unassailable leader of his earlier years. He had come to power promising to be a powerful defender of Russian sovereignty; now he hoards orphans to score a political point that inadvertently demonstrates how little leverage he actually has. Putin is the leader of a regime that appears insecure, nervous, and thin-skinned…

Putin’s decision on Friday to deny his country’s most helpless citizens a better future is the most craven example of his desperate search for a cure to his own sagging popularity. Russians see the Kremlin’s new anti-corruption crusade—a number of senior officials, including the defense minister, have been caught in the dragnet—as the empty populist gambit that it is. Corruption is Russia’s most durable currency; a campaign to end graft can only go so far before it becomes a threat to the entire political system.

The bad news for Putin is that his xenophobic, anti-American displays no longer work on a population that increasingly views him as illegitimate.