Last week’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his business partner Platon Lebedev are not political prisoners was a major public relations triumph for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

 There is now speculation that Putin might crown his triumph with a display of magnanimity, releasing Khodorkovsky and Lebedev from jail before their sentences are up in 2016. Vladimir Frolov in the English-language Moscow Times  opines that:

. . Although [Khodorkovsky and Lebedev] have not admitted their guilt, even if they would be released early on parole, they would still remain on record as convicted criminals, not political prisoners of conscience. And a criminal conviction would make them ineligible for running in an election. Moreover, the conditions of the parole are likely to restrict their active involvement in politics and media exposure.

As so often turns out to be the case in Russian politics these days, all benefits would accrue to Putin, while any risks would be borne by President Dmitry Medvedev alone.

Here's Frolov again:

For Putin, releasing Khodorkovsky and Lebedev . . . would send a powerful signal at home and abroad that Putin’s return to the Kremlin, were he to opt for it, would be nothing to fear. In an instant, it would help defang his liberal and Western critics and would allow him to enter the presidential race without the political baggage of his earlier rule. . . . If he wanted to play dirty, he could even disavow the release as Medvedev’s pandering to the oligarchs, liberals and the West. For Putin, this would be a show of uncontested, almost royal primacy, not weakness.

As Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for March 2012, draws near, it's still unclear which of the dyarchy’s members, Putin or Medvedev, will run for the top job of president. In a ZhivoyZhurnal blog post, Stas Kucher concludes that Medvedev is “finished as president.”

Kucher:

[Former President Boris Yeltsin] would often not appear in public for weeks or make any declarations. But times are different now. Medvedev is in good shape and doesn’t drink. News stories abound that could serve as a pretext for him to speak out publicly – Libya, the Popular Front . . . even new forest fires!

Medvedev, who last month had his first major presidential press conference after three years in office, remains silent. “I have the feeling,” Kucher adds, “that the president is of his own accord extinguishing himself and his image. Like an actor who has finished his role and understand it’s time to withdraw behind the stage curtains.”

Some 450 organizations and at least one celebrity, former chess champion Anatoli Karpov, have already joined Putin’s Popular Front, reports Gazeta.ru. Putin, meanwhile, is maintaining an air of mystery about his political ambitions, spritzed with a dash of regal aloofness. RBCDaily.ru and KP.ru  reported on his recent visit with volunteers (and the musical group Murzilki International) who were on the Black Sea coast to clean up ski slopes in advance of the 2014 Olympics near Sochi. After being greeted by an impromptu chorus of the Russian pop hit, “I’ve really been looking forward to seeing you, Vova!” -- Vova being the affectionate diminutive of Vladimir -- Putin was grilled by the students on a wide range of contentious issues.

His fitness regimen, for example. “How do you keep yourself in such good shape?" A female admirer asked him. "The country should follow your example!”

Putin warmed to the task:

“I go to the gym. I warm up and then swim a kilometer. From time to time I hit the tatami. During the winter I ski with Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] here in Sochi. I’ve even tried skating. I thought that I could never do that . . . I put on the skates and was like a cow on ice (Putin whistled, and showed with his arms what happens when a cow’s legs splay on ice). I thought, can it really be that I’ll never be able to skate? I’d look at our hockey players and envy them. Then, just three months, ago I got back on the ice. I wasn’t quite steady, but I think this time I’ll manage to learn.”

After Putin sang a Soviet-era pop classic, “We Didn’t Make Up This World," he was tossed another hot potato:

“You work like a galley slave,” one of the volunteers told him. “I just feel terrible for you . . . You need to spend time with your family.”

Putin seized the opportunity to drop a hint about his intentions. “So, I see you’re sending me into retirement," he said. "Even if you consider my age, it’s too early.”

Putin may not be getting any younger, but his image of masculine virility is well-crafted and appears durable for at least another election. It might nonetheless face a compelling test one day, especially if a particularly alluring opponent challenges him for president. One person of interest is none other than Anna Chapman, the femme fatale expelled from the U.S. in 2010 as part of a spy-swap deal.

This isn’t quite as improbable as it sounds -- if not for 2012 then for the campaign of 2018. Famously exposed by her British ex-husband as an aficionada of both power and erotic toys, Chapman has recently augmented her political profile by appealing for calm after December riots in Moscow and by landing a seat on the public council of United Russia’s Young Guard. In his article “Is Russia Ready for a Female President?” Tom Washington of the Moscow News weighs the prospects:

“Russian women may have led their sisters into space and paid with their lives for openness and human rights in the Caucasus, but the number of women with genuine political clout is still small."

Washington goes on to profile the potential female contenders: Elena Nabiullina, since 2007 Minister of Economic Development – “a traditionally macho sphere of government.” Ksenya Sobchak, an “it-girl, presenter on Dom 2, Russia’s Big Brother, and a professional crooner.” And, of course, the pièce de résistance, Anna Chapman, who possesses:

“a knack for recovery and has already dabbled in politics, becoming the face of United Russia’s Molodaya Gvardia [Young Guard]. As editor-in-chief of Venture Business News, TV personality and scantily clad model she at least proves versatility and is one of the most iconic Russian women of the moment. Although her travel ban might put a damper on the Russia-U.S. reset.”

Faced with a contest pitting former spymaster Putin's machismo against former spy Chapman’s polymorphous “versatility,” Russian voters could be forgiven for blushing.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net