Putin's Olympic Gamble

A report from Sochi.

If you build it, will they come? And be secure from terrorists’ bombs? And will Team Russia capture the gold?

Vladimir Putin has bet tens of billions that the answers are yes, yes, and yes. (As a guest at the opening extravaganza and first few days of competition, I had skin in only one of those games.)

Hugely more consequential than the money for Putin is the bravado. Defying a campaign by gay-rights advocates and others calling for a boycott, dismissing the Western oddsmakers, and challenging terrorists in the nearby North Caucasus who have repeatedly threatened to disrupt the event, Putin has pledged that Russia will deliver an Olympics that will in his words be “spectacular” and “unforgettable.” Before an audience which Russian official sources peg at three billion people, if he fails, there will be no place to hide.

Many things could have gone wrong even before the games opened on Friday. Teams, official delegations, and tens of thousands of international spectators could have failed to show up (or could have sent token representation like the Americans did). The mammoth building project—which required everything from new water and sewer systems to roads, railroads, hotels, seven indoor arenas and two outdoor competition parks—could have been unfinished. Many more things can still go wrong in the next two weeks: the weather can turn as warm as it was this time last year, the terrorists can rise to Putin’s challenge, and the Russian Olympians can fall as flat as they did at the previous Winter Games in Vancouver. If he fails, Putin will not simply lose his bets. He will be seen by all Russians, and the world, as a loser.

To appreciate the magnitude of Putin’s personal stakes as he begins the fourteenth year of his rule, start with Tip O’Neill’s law. The legendary Speaker of the House declared famously that “all politics is local.” Since a politician’s first imperative is to maintain his position of power, he worries first and most intensely about competitors at home, not far away.

Two years ago, Putin was in trouble on the home front. The blatant theft of the December 2011 parliamentary elections triggered an unprecedented uprising by the emerging middle class, who launched massive demonstrations in Moscow and other major Russian cities. Many Russians as well as outsiders predicted that even if Putin ran for another term as president and won, he would be forced to retire early or at least share power with the opposition in a step toward greater democratization.

Instead Putin turned right, concentrating power in his administration, the siloviki clan, and concentric circles of loyal oligarchs who control the commanding heights of the Russian economy. Putin’s associates call this a “power vertical,” analogous to China’s neo-authoritarian model of governance with power flowing down from the leader. While Putin’s hope has been to follow China's lead in legitimize this ruling structure by delivering high levels of economic growth, he knows growth is highly dependent on oil prices. Thus, he has been strengthening a second leg to stand on: renewed pride in a country that has overcome the chaos of the 1990s, restored basic security, and is again realizing its greatness.

Like all international meetings, these games provide a platform for the host’s domestic politics. Uniquely, the Olympics allow the leader of the host country to wrap himself in his nation’s flag, athletic prowess, and all the other symbolism and mysticism that lead citizens to be proud of their national identity. Thus at home, Putin has positioned Sochi as a demonstration that under his leadership, “Yes, Russia can.”

The decision to put this proposition to such a high-visibility test in Sochi will, in retrospect, be judged foolhardy if it fails or courageous if it succeeds. Putin’s bet that both Olympians and spectators will be secure is particularly risky, given the proximity of Sochi to the insurgency-infested North Caucasus. Only fifty miles separate the Black Sea resort from the North Caucasian republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, which is populated by the remnants of once powerful Adyghe tribes that made a last stand against imperial Russian troops in the Sochi area 150 years ago. North Caucasus terrorist leader Doku Umarov highlighted the annihilation of the Adyghe around Sochi when urging his followers to disrupt the games, which he described as “Satanic dancing on the bones of our ancestors.”

Another tragic anniversary falls on the day the Olympics close: February 23 will mark 70 years since the deportation of a half million Chechens from their homeland to Central Asia. While the North Caucasian terrorists’ capabilities have waned since the 1990s, the region’s respected “Caucasian Knot” news portal counted 127 Russian law-enforcement officers killed by local insurgents in 2013, more casualties than the United States suffered in Afghanistan in the same period.

Given such risks, a successful Sochi Olympics will bolster Putin’s image abroad and challenge Western claims about Russia’s irrelevance. Differences over Syria’s civil war, sanctuary for Edward Snowden, and more recently the struggle for power in Ukraine have driven US-Russia relations to the lowest point since the 2008 war in Georgia. At the same time, Russia’s relationship with China continues to strengthen. President Xi Jinping’s first trip after taking power in 2013 was not to Washington but to Moscow.