The prevailing narrative in the Western media in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi has been one of Russia’s shortcomings. We have seen amusing tweets from journalists detailing unfinished hotels, missing pieces of infrastructure, and even tap water of uncertain provenance. More ominous have been the stories about how hackers are waiting to quickly break into your personal computing devices and steal your information once you arrive in Russia. The consensus is that Sochi is not ready to host the Games, despite the promises of the Russian government, due in part to the endemic problems that Russia faces—including corruption, domestic unrest, and the North Caucasus insurgencies. On top of that, a variety of groups opposed to the policies pursued by the Putin administration—from its restrictions on "immoral propaganda" of "nontraditional” lifestyles to its political and economic pressure to forestall a proposed Ukrainian association agreement with the European Union—have compared the Sochi 2014 Games to the ones held in Berlin in 1936 under the sponsorship of Adolf Hitler. Certainly distaste for Kremlin initiatives has been one reason that a number of Western leaders declined invitations to attend the opening ceremonies—and if the Russian government was hoping that Sochi 2014 would, like Beijing 2008, be the means for highlighting Russia's emergence as one of the twenty-first century's great powers, they will be sorely disappointed.
All of this contributes to a storyline that the Sochi Olympics will be a colossal embarrassment for Vladimir Putin, with some even speculating that a public humiliation at a time when the eyes of the world will be focused on Sochi might even be a catalyst for energizing domestic opposition to Putin.
There can be no doubt that the roll-out of Sochi has fallen short of the Kremlin’s original expectations, and there is still the very real threat of a terrorist action at the Games that would call into question the efficacy of Russia's vaunted efforts ("the ring of steel") around the region. Putin prefers that world leaders make the trek to be seen at the Games, but their presence is not absolutely necessary to follow through with Putin's plans.
My sense is that, barring a major terrorist incident at Sochi, which would call into question his control and effectiveness, Putin will deem the Games to be a reasonable success and will have achieved many of his objectives, particularly if the Russian team puts in a better performance than at the 2010 Vancouver Games. There is also the factor that Sochi's earlier bids, during the Yeltsin administration, to host the Winter Games failed; Putin succeeded in 2007, so simply having won the Games was already a major victory in Putin's efforts to show that Russian influence in the world was on the upswing. Nor does he seem to be concerned about possible protests by visiting athletes. There seem to be indications that Putin has welcomed Western criticisms of his policies, particularly those directed against gays and lesbians, as a way to make inroads both among Western social conservatives as well as strengthening his bid to be seen as the de facto leader of the international reaction to U.S. efforts to promote Western-style liberalism and the leading defender of the rights of countries around the world to safeguard their "traditional values."
Despite the unfinished construction and consistent
I also believe that developing Sochi—and the Olympics provided the rationale for the budgeting of large amounts of state resources for the task—needs to be seen in light of Putin's vision of the Eurasian Union. Putin believes that, over time, his proposed Eurasian Union will be able to eclipse what he sees as the illusory attractiveness of the European Union for the post-Soviet states of Eurasia. Symbolically, a redeveloped Sochi sends a message that whatever one was looking for in Europe, one can find in the Eurasian Union as well.
Seen in that light, the real test for Putin is not how Western media reports the Olympic Games, but whether his gamble that Russia under his leadership can create and sustain the Eurasian Union pays off. Sochi is a test of whether or not his administration is capable of major new construction. So far, the results are mixed—but the jury won't deliver a final vote until long after the athletes have departed.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor atthe National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are entirely his own.