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.
Many see the First World War as the end of the Prussian monarchy, or the birth of Communist Russia, but overlook the eclipse of one of the world’s greatest empires, that of the Ottomans. Since the defeat of Christian Byzantium at the sack of Constantinople, Europe’s south-eastern flank would be dominated by the world of Islam. This reality – born in the middle-ages – would persist until 1918. The First World War marked the end of an age and the beginning of another in many respects, but perhaps the defeat of the Ottoman Empire is the most drastic example of this historic watershed.
While Europe was trapped in centuries of dark ages, the world of Islam had been culturally and technologically ahead. Muslim cities in the medieval period possessed advanced infrastructure and architecture, the accomplishments of their universities and libraries meant they were the world’s best in many areas of science and industry. Once North Africa and much of the Middle East had belonged to the Romans, but by the Medieval period these lands had fallen to the Caliphate. Byzantium was the Medieval continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire had been overrun by barbarian hordes, its title reused by the first Holy Roman Emperor, the Frankish King Charlemagne. To medieval Europe, the Muslim threat was embodied by the Ottoman Turks, a reality which continued into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, and indeed until the Great War. The Turks were the face of Islam from the defeat of the Byzantines at Battle of Manzikert in 1071 until 1918; only recently have the Arabs been recognised as the head of Muslim civilization.
Constantinople had at one point been the greatest city in Europe. It had been the capital of Byzantium, which had remained a Christian entity since the Eastern Roman Emperor Constantine ruled from its seat. But the city fell to the Turks in 1453. If this caused anxiety for the Christian monarchs of eastern and southern Europe, the next century would cause considerably more.
Following Turkish conquest of Damascus in 1516 and their subsequent advances on Egypt and Arabia, the janissary armies of the Ottomans turned on Hungary, which had become the great eastern christian bastion after the fall of Constantinople. Following the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Hungary was overrun. The Ottoman Empire was now at its height, and covered more territory than that of Rome. One could hardly blame scholars at the time for concluding that the future would belong to the Islamic world, and much of the continent would inevitably belong to the Sultan. This inclination nearly became reality when the Ottomans besieged Vienna in 1529, and when they did so again in 1683.
The capitulation of the Ottomans: a drawn-out affair
Yet the Ottoman Empire would inevitably falter and collapse. Its armies and navies, however formidable, were overextended – needing to maintain frontiers in Central Europe, the Crimean, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, and the Near East where the Ottomans were challenged by the Persians. This geographic challenge of the area is one I explore further in The Geopolitical Realities of Eurasia. Its challenges were not insurmountable, but as a single entity the Ottoman Empire was overly centralised. Whereas European division was in many ways the continent’s strength, as competing states would challenge one-another to explore and expand, one foolish Sultan could do more damage to the Ottoman Empire that any lone European monarch or pope could ever hope to accomplish. From 1566 on, there reigned thirteen incompetent sultans in succession, sealing the empire’s doom.
It was the slow retreat of the Turks that caused the European powers to look towards the Balkans and consider who would benefit from the Turkish collapse. It was this power struggle, known as the ‘Eastern Question,’ that among other things motivated a Habsburg Archduke to parade himself and his nation’s power in Sarajevo, whose death in turn triggered the Great War that would divide the lands that still remained under Turkish control.
The First World War severed the Arab provinces from the sultan’s grip. Ironically, early twentieth-century Arabian warfare was remarkably similar to that of fourteenth-century Europe, allowing the medieval-military historian Thomas Edward Lawrence to exploit the Arabic advantages. Of course, this legendary figure did not engineer the Arabic revolt on his own, his own account of the events in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was admitted to be part myth. Furthermore, the Arabs would not get what they had fought for, as the ever imperialist states of Britain and France would divide the Middle East between themselves. This, after-all, was inadvertently why the whole war had begun.
Lawrence’s companion, Prince Feisal, spoke to the delegation in the Paris Peace Conference while Lawrence translated. They must have looked an odd pair, especially the Englishman who had donned the white robes and gold sashing normally reserved for a senior sheik. Feisal said that the Arabs wanted self-determination, and while he was prepared to exempt Lebanon and Palestine from this demand, the rest of the Arab world should be given independence as the British and French had promised. When the French reminded Lawrence that their forces had fought in Syria during the crusades, Lawrence replied: “Yes, but the Crusaders had been defeated and the Crusades had failed.” Against the wishes of Lawrence and the Arabs, Britain was also determined to get a piece of the Middle East. Forced to prevent the non-colonial aspirations of the American President Woodrow Wilson by co-operating, the two imperial rivals came to a quick compromise; Britain would get Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine, while France would get Syria and Lebanon. The Arabian Peninsula did not concern the imperial powers much, probably because all those ‘miles of sand’ were not of much value at the time.
The British motives were clear. For long they had supported the Ottoman Empire to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping, but now they needed an alternate hold in the area. This motivation highlights the geopolitical value of the area. Where once the Muslims had dominated the Silk Road which provided medieval Europe with eastern riches, now the British needed to protect its trade route to India. Of course, the Industrial Revolution had created new interests in the area’s oil, but the old geopolitical motives persisted as well.
Constantinople was promised to the Russian Czar at one point in the war, but the concessions made by the Bolsheviks cancelled that agreement. While the once-great Ottoman Empire was divided, Constantinople would remain in the hands of its owners since 1453. It was occupied by the allied powers (unofficially at first), but this would not survive the determination of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Remarking at the presence of allied warships in Constantinople’s harbour, he proclaimed: “As they have come, so they shall go.”
A modern Turkey would rise from the ashes
As a young officer in the Turkish military, Atatürk oversaw Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and Bulgaria secession from Turkish influence. The Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 result in the Ottomans loss of Albania and Macedonia, and Libya had been lost to the Italians. By 1914, the European portion of the Ottoman Empire, which had once stretched far into Hungary, was almost wholly gone – all that remained was an enclave in Thrace. Throughout the Great War, Atatürk remained the only undefeated Ottoman general. His reputation was made at Gallipoli, the same battle where many allied reputations were destroyed. In his eyes Turkey was defeated not by greater armies, but by greater civilization. Henceforth, he would ensure Turkey would adopt European-style culture and politics. Indeed, Turkey remains a secular state to this day.
Atatürk sent Inonu Ismet, a trusted general, to the Paris Peace Conference to negotiate. He was instructed to achieve an independent Turkey, and as a good soldier he intended to achieve just this by any means. Turkey’s new borders included almost all the Turkish speaking territories of their former Ottoman Empire, but the fact was the empire had ended and a new very different state had been birthed. It was truly the end of an age.
Anderson, Scott. Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Random House, 2013.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.
MacMillan, Margaret. Paris 1919. New York: Random House, 2002.
I strongly believe that it is time for an American military response to Assad’s brutality. I appreciate the case made by many that military action may only exacerbate the violence in Syria, but it is also equally possible that military action will quicken Assad’s departure. The fact is violence will ensue either way. Therefore we must look beyond the direct effects of an American military strike, to the broader consequences of not reacting to this affront of human decency.
Disclaimer: this article is based on the assumption that it was the regime of Bashar al-Assad that used chemical weapons on the East Ghouta region of Damascus, resulting in the death of over a thousand Syrian men, women, and children. Despite denials by the regime and its foreign backers, I believe the evidence to be overwhelming. Anyone with doubts should watch John Kerry’s disclosure of the evidence. Regardless, this debate is for another article.
A Dangerous Precedent – The Humanitarian Case
The use of chemical weapons is both against international convention and international norms. There exists a standard in international relations wherein it is morally reprehensible for a state to use chemical weapons. Indeed, unlike many other horrendous weapons, chemical weapons have only been used three times in historic warfare: World War 1, Italy’s 1935-1936 invasion of Ethiopia, and the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War – that is of course before Syria fell into disarray.
Thus, Assad’s use of chemical weapons sets a dangerous precedent. Without an American reaction, in the 21st century it would become acceptable to use these horrendous tools of human destruction on civilian populations. Indeed, Assad used these weapons on his own people. What does this say to other tyrants who face domestic opposition? If the world is willing to stand by and watch as Assad poisons men, women, and children, this opens the door to future autocrats who hope to hold on to power through any means necessary. No matter how violent or brutal the method, the world will stand back and watch.
True, this is a job for the United Nations. But the UN has been hopelessly defanged by the threat of Russian and Chinese Security Council vetoes; thus the task falls to the United States of America. But without UN backing, it is critical for Barack Obama to gain the legitimizing support of a multinational coalition. Other states in the region and the Arab League have a particularly important role to play in this.
A Matter of Credibility – The National Security Case
In August of last year, President Barack Obama warned that the use of chemical weapons would bring about an American response. For clarity, here are his words:
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime … that a red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus – that would change my equation. We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
Admittedly, Obama did not directly say his reaction would be a military one, but it was assumed that this is what the President meant. Also, like many (including myself) the President probably did not assume Assad would be able to cling to power for as long as he has, and this threat was part of other tough language that would hasten Assad’s departure. In hindsight this may have been a mistake, but the mistake was made and the consequences must be handled.
We have now reached the point that chemical weapons have been used on a large scale on a civilian population by the Syrian government. Assuming Obama does not act, what message does this send to other regimes who hope to frustrate American ambitions in the region. What will Iran learn from this? Iran will learn that it can continue its nuclear program without fear of an American reaction. The precedent will be set that American leadership does not mean what it says. In this era of American isolationism lawlessness in the world will reign supreme.
A Final Clarification
I find it very troubling that many have compared a potential military strike on Syria to 2003’s invasion of Iraq. The two are incomparable. First, Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unprovoked preventive attack. Syria would be a limited reaction to protect the civilians of a foreign country who face a direct and immediate threat. Second, 2003’s invasion of Iraq was an attempt to remove a government and replace it with American-backed institutions. Syria is only an attempt to hasten the removal of Assad by rebel forces in the country. Finally, Iraq required tens of thousands of American troops on the ground. Nobody is talking about a ground-invasion of Syria, and with good reason. The American public is war-weary, and boots-on-the-ground would likely only paint the Americans as occupiers. If the world does nothing, Syria will join Rwanda and be studied by future generations as a case of international inaction, this is the true comparison people should consider.
I Compel the Civilized Nations of the World to Act
Force can be used for good in the world. It was used to prevent Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait. It was used to end the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It was used to remove Colonel Qaddafi, a tyrant who possessed Assad-like potential. It can be used for good in Syria. I compel the nations of the world to act.