Putin's Olympic Gamble

February 12, 2014 Topic: AutocracySociety Region: Russia

Putin's Olympic Gamble

A report from Sochi.

In sum, Russia’s president has put down a lot of his chips on this Olympic gamble. In the worst case, if a major terrorist attack forced cancellation of the remaining events, Putin would be seen to have lost control. He would be accused of reckless adventurism. His future would be in doubt. But if he succeeds despite the naysayers and potential pitfalls, his standing at home and abroad will be enhanced. Indeed, he may be emboldened to make even bigger bets when the next opportunity arises.

My hope is that after celebrating a successful Sochi, Putin will direct the focused energy he devoted to prepare for the Olympics toward the hard core of problems that define Russia today: from overdependence on hydrocarbons and alcohol, to an aging population that has just stabilized after two decades of decline, to rampant corruption, restive minorities in the North Caucasus, and most importantly, an economy whose growth slowed to 1.3% last year. Russia is a troubled nation. When individual Russians have an opportunity to compete on the basis of raw talent, hard work and determination—as their athletes are showing in Sochi—they excel. Putin’s challenge is to find a way to allow young Russians equivalent economic and political opportunities at home so that the likes of Sergey Brin (the Moscow-born cofounder of Google) do not need to go elsewhere in order to succeed.

Graham Allison is director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.