The 2014 Winter Olympic Games will showcase the Russian state, but not for the reasons for which Russia was granted the honour of hosting the Olympics. Sports fans will enjoy watching the endless coverage that comes with the spectacle. So too will those who adore foreign policy.
The Sochi Winter Olympic Games will be the first held in Russia since the breakup of the USSR – the last being the Moscow Olympics of 1980. As such this will be Putin’s opportunity to showcase his new(ish) Russia to the world. And showcase he will. As of October 2013, the budget had already exceeded $50billion, which dwarfs London’s budget of $19billion, and even Beijing’s which cost $40billion.
Unbeknownst to the committee that granted Sochi the games in 2007, back when Russia appeared to be a reforming nation with a promising ‘BRIC’ status economy, the event will be a geopolitical spectacle as well as one of sport. A number of conflicts are converging upon the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. I will examine each in turn.
Russia’s Homophobic Legislation
Modern Western values are at conflict with traditional Russian ones. The Kremlin has passed a law banning “pro-homosexual propaganda.” This has created a climate of aggression, in which vigilantes attack sexual minorities. Vladimir Putin’s purpose for the act is simple. It came as a surprise to the populist Putin to face active protests from the liberal middle class centered mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However the Russian majority remains solidly homophobic, as much of the West did until quite recently. The new anti-gay legislation achieves two things. First the law is meant to drive a cultural wedge between the liberal opposition to Putin and his remaining supporters in the more conservative provinces. Second it differentiates Putin from the West, making the West appear alien and immoral to the traditional Russian public, and making Putin the apparent protector of Russian values.
Many advocated for a boycott of the Russian games in response to this discriminatory legislation, but none came. However I would argue the alternative will achieve more for gay-rights. Soon, thousands of athletes and fans from around the world will cluster in Sochi, and inevitably many of these individuals will be gay or supporters of the marginalised gay community in Russia. It would not surprise me to see rainbow flags in the stands, or perhaps even more ostentatious forms of protest. If this is done by foreigners in Sochi, there is nothing the Russian authorities can do. If it is done by Russians in greater Russia, the whole world will be watching the Kremlin’s reaction.
Unrest in the Ukraine
On December 17th of last year, an agreement was reached between Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych whereby Russia would lend Ukraine $15billion and would slash the gas price from $400 to $268 per thousand cubic metres. This was all a result of Yanukovych’s ditching of an association agreement with the EU.
Ukrainians have poured into the streets in response, besieging government buildings and generally causing unrest. Many must feel their country slowly slipping back behind the Soviet veil. This of course is Putin’s strategy. Russia’s foreign policy paradigm is traceable to the thirteenth century. To maintain its security, Russia must conquer as much territory as it can. Russia was left extremely vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved, more vulnerable even than it was left in the wake of the First World War, when it was bitterly defeated by the central powers. Ukraine is of a more personal desire to the Kremlin, because it was in Kiev that the modern Russian state was born. Putin continues to see the world in traditional, realist terms, and he wishes to bring Russia back to great-power status.
Sochi is literally less than a day’s drive from Kiev, and soon Ukrainian athletes and fans will be flocking to the Black Sea resort city. Since their own country’s political crisis is intimately tied to the Russian state, one can expect there to be some animosity between the two camps. However, let us not forget the anti-Putin protests that occurred not so long ago. Perhaps Ukrainian activism will spark something similar in Russia.
Russia’s Support of the Syrian Regime
For nearly three years civil war has raged in Syria. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has brutally supressed its own population, stooping so low as to gas Syrian civilians with nerve agents. If that did anything to attract world attention to the crisis, the recent report of three former war crimes prosecutors – saying they have seen compelling evidence of the systematic murder of some 11,000 detainees through starvation, beatings and torture – will only do more. The evidence of the war crimes is hard to fault. A former photographer for the Syrian regime defected. The report’s authors, who interviewed the source for three days, served as prosecutors at the criminal tribunals of the former Yugoslavia.
Despite the growing disgust the international community has for Assad, Russia has remained steadfastly in support of one of its last allies in the region. Moscow has continued to supply Assad’s army with military equipment. Russia possesses a Mediterranean naval-port in Tartous; it could lose this strategically vital military base should the Assad regime fall. But beyond this specific attachment to Syria, one must again recall Russia’s entire foreign-policy motif. It sees the middle-east as its ‘soft underbelly,’ much like United States sees Central America as its ‘backyard.’ To lose an ally in the geopolitically important region of the Middle East would be anathema to the Kremlin.
Soon, all eyes will be on Russia. If anything happens to make Syria of extreme interest during the fortnight that is the Olympic Games, questions will be asked, and Putin will have to explain Russia’s steadfast support of a madman. If nothing happens, questions will still be asked.
The Syrian conflict also exemplifies a broader struggle between Moscow and Washington. This relationship has deteriorated in recent years with Russian acts such as the amnesty granted to Edward Snowden, and American acts such as Obama’s cancellation of a September summit. The two states were most at-odds while during the period in September when America nearly engaged in an armed response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. By engineering a face-saving alternative, Putin emerged from this struggle the apparent victor. The Olympics will allow Putin an opportunity to cement this posturing success.
Terrorism in the Caucasus
Probably the most troubling concern surrounding Sochi is that of the terrorists in the Caucasus region itself. Regions such as Dagestan are highly volatile, rebels there were responsible for the December Volgograd bombings. No doubt this is one of the two central reasons why the games are of such high-cost, the other being corruption. All aspects of the Russian military have been mobilised to prevent such threats – including submarines to patrol the Black Sea. If even a minor event occurs to marginalise security of the games, all eyes will be on Putin, and the Russian response. It is highly likely an attack will occur somewhere, even though Sochi itself has become a veritable stronghold. Russian authorities are known for their ruthlessness when dealing with domestic threats. If human-rights and other Western values are sidestepped, the world will witness it.
Showcasing Russian Authoritarianism
Many hoped Russia would liberalise after 1991. Putin has quashed these hopes. His return to the presidency through a rigged election displays the sham that was Dimitri Medvedev’s presidential reign. The country has returned to its Soviet ideals, or perhaps closer to its Czarist ones. To the extent that the Olympics will be a stage for Putin to dabble in his usual populist stunts, these games remind one of the triumphs of Rome: an opportunity for one man to centralise political power on himself alone. This, of course, is eerily similar to the strategy of Stalin.
Freedland, Jonathan. “Can evidence of mass killings in Syria end the inertia? Only with Putin’s help.” The Guardian, 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
“Most expensive Olympics in history.” RT, February 2013. http://rt.com/business/sochi-cost-record-history-404/
“Putin’s Expensive Victory.” The Economist, 31 December 2013.
Treisman, Daniel. “The Wrong Way to Punish Putin.” Foreign Affairs, August 2013.