MOSCOW - It came as a shock both to those released and the general public - President Vladimir Putin's move to pardon his foes has allowed him to drive the news agenda less than two months before the Sochi Games.
Putin is dribbling out a headline day after day in the media. First, Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released after a decade in prison, then Pussy Riot activists were pardoned, and now 30 Greenpeace activists are awaiting their turn.
The abrupt move by Putin to release his adversaries mixed the elements of an astute spin effort with a crude KGB-style operation.
The pardons could help repair some of the damage to Russia's image before the Winter Olympics, which run Feb. 7-23, but they don't ease tensions with the West over Ukraine and other issues, including gay rights, and tight Kremlin control over Russia's political scene remains unchanged.
No one in Russia expected Putin to release Khodorkovsky, his arch-foe and once Russia's richest man, after more than a decade in prison.
In fact, most observers felt pretty certain that authorities would file another set of criminal charges against the former oil tycoon to prevent him from walking free after serving his term.
Putin announced his decision to pardon Khodorkovsky as he was walking out of a four-hour news conference in response to a question from a Kremlin-friendly news outlet. If he did that at the news conference, it would have diverted attention from other subjects and spoiled the show.
Khodorkovsky's release topped the news for several days. Then on Monday came the turn of the two members of the Pussy Riot punk band, who were serving two-year terms for an irreverent protest against Putin at Moscow's main cathedral in March 2012.
The women didn't receive the same secretive treatment that Khodorkovsky had and were quickly released. Maria Alekhina was driven to a railway station but walked away and went to a local non-governmental organization. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova went to her grandmother's home after being released from prison and briefly speaking to journalists.
Next on the list is the 30-member crew of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, who spent two months in jail for a protest outside Russia's Arctic oil platform. They are waiting for a stamp on their passports to be able to leave Russia, something expected within days.