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.
President Obama, Angela Merkel of Germany, and leaders of other Western European nations may have skipped Sochi. But if the history of the twenty-first century will be written in Asia, the leaders of the countries who will write it were present, including China’s Xi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, and five times as many heads of state as attended the previous Winter Olympics. In the more relaxed setting of sports, parties and time away from their capitals, Putin and the members of his government are not only showcasing a new Russia, but doing specific business on bilateral issues with the visiting leaders.
As Julia Ioffe, senior editor of the New Republic and no friend of Putin’s Russia, wrote this week, Western press coverage of Sochi has been, in a word: “Russophobic.” The chorus of skepticism and criticism has essentially amplified the prevailing refrain about Putin’s Russia as a backward, brutish, bullying relic of the past. Ironically, the effect of this has been just the opposite of what was intended. By conflating Putin and Russia, they have reinforced Putin’s narrative of Western opposition not to his policies, but to a strong Russia itself. Russian television coverage has taken this exaggerated negativism as a cue to sing one of its favorite songs about America begrudging Russia any success. The effect has been to bolster support for a government that stands up for Russia. In addition, Western coverage has so lowered expectations for Sochi that simply by happening, the event will appear successful. There is indeed a lot not to like about Putin and the direction he is taking Russia. But as a lens through which to view this extraordinary athletic competition, this distorts much more than it clarifies.
Putin’s entourage enjoys reminding the Americans here that, despite the US government’s attempts to disparage Sochi and even diss Putin himself, when the Obama team finds itself in international dead ends, where is it forced to turn? To the EU? To the UN or Saudi Arabia? There can be no question that on Syria, Putin and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov emerged as kingmakers. And as one of his associates told me recently, Putin is betting that when Obama sees the whites of the Iranians’ eyes, it will again be Russia to whom he must turn in order to stop Iran’s nuclear program without war.
As another member of the Russian host committee observed with a smile, Obama, Merkel and their colleagues may have missed the Olympics. But where will they be in four months when Putin hosts the G8 summit? In Sochi!
Approaching the halfway point of the two-week event, Putin’s team is confident, but not cocky. The sports facilities are finished, fashionable, and user friendly. Ticket takers, vendors and the security guards are polite. The theatrics of the opening ceremony rocked: a combination of the Super Bowl, Fourth of July fireworks, stagecraft with floating islands and mountains, catchy slogans (“Hot.Cool.Yours.”), and LEDs flashing the Russian flag’s white, blue and red—all orchestrated to make Russians proud of their country.
By highlighting Russia’s achievements in the arts, literature, science, sports and style from before Peter the Great to the present, the event conveyed a subliminal message of historical inevitability: the bear is back. (One of the hundreds of young people serving as hosts to attendees told me it all made her so proud she cried.)
Beyond these two weeks, Putin has made a long-term bet with even longer odds. By putting Sochi on the map, he imagines that he can make it an international destination. Its unique combination of ski, sea and sun will, he believes, attract tens of thousands of Russian, European, and other tourists who now travel annually to resorts elsewhere.
Thus the major investment in Sochi’s infrastructure is, in Putin’s telling, a short-term stimulus for Russia’s slowing economy and a step toward diversification beyond oil and gas to include tourism. Given the competition from resorts in the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps with much longer winter seasons (not to mention from destinations in the Aegean and Adriatic with longer summers and bluer waters), I remain dubious. As I responded to my host, Putin’s wager and the advertising that goes along with it remind me of an exchange in Shakespeare’s Henry IV: Glendower declares he “can call spirits from the vasty deep.” Hotspur replies, “Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come?”