Russia’s Sochi Gamble
February 13, 2014
The Sochi Games are an enormous gamble for Moscow that could elevate or seriously damage its image as a major international player. Success will hinge, Paul Saunders reports, on Russia being able to deal effectively with several challenges, including potential political protests and the threat of terroris t attacks.
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The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast, will be a major test for Moscow. After spending several years and some $50 billion—over 10% of the country’s annual federal government expenditures, at a time when Russia faces a budget deficit—to prepare for the Games and the international attention they bring, the coming weeks could have a huge impact on global perceptions of Russia and its capabilities and role. A successful event could reinforce the view of Russia as a major international player, while serious failures could fuel an alternative narrative of a country stagnating or in decline. It is an enormous gamble.
Fortunately for those managing the Alpine events, earlier concerns about potentially warm weather in this subtropical climate appear to be fading. Russia’s official weather service is projecting below-freezing temperatures in the mountains, reassuring those anxious about insufficient snow. Nevertheless, Russia’s officials continue to face three major challenges in their Olympic moment: management, politics, and terrorism.
International media have already highlighted each of these three challenges in the months and days leading up to the Games. Analysts have speculated whether all of the Olympic sites would be ready in time. Activists for various causes have sought to squeeze themselves into Russia’s international spotlight hoping that by capturing eyeballs they can win hearts and minds. And security officials have reassured athletes and spectators that tens of thousands of troops and police will keep Sochi safe from “black widows” and other potential terrorists.
While it has clearly been a race to the finish line to complete Sochi’s massive construction projects, early reports suggest that this has been largely accomplished. The delays reported so far appear minor—landscaping and hotel amenities—and peripheral to the Games themselves. But hosting the Olympics is about far more than building things; the next three weeks will demonstrate whether all of the structures and systems put in place, from hotels to transportation to computer and communications networks, will function smoothly and invisibly.
Politics poses a different problem. Even before the International Olympic Committee selected Sochi as the host city for the 2014 Winter Games, human rights groups troubled by Russia’s governance and practices lobbied against the choice. Since the selection, many have called for a boycott of the Games. This effort rather predictably failed; the last significant Olympic boycott, in 1980, came after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and whatever its failings, Russia is not the Soviet Union in its foreign policy or its domestic arrangements.
Nevertheless, US and other Western leaders have generally stayed home, with the exception of Italy’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who publicly explained that he had to attend the Games to support Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics, and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has sought closer ties to Moscow for understandable geopolitical reasons.
Despite this, President Vladimir Putin’s top foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov has announced that some 60 heads of state or heads of government will visit Sochi during the Olympic Games. Taking into account that only 85 nations are sending teams to compete, this is a substantial share of those participating. And it suggests that however Western governments and activists may feel about Mr. Putin’s leadership style, many in the rest of the world have a different view.
Still, Russia may have to contend with unexpected political protests in Sochi—and the international reaction to its responses. This is less likely to be a problem for Moscow during the Games themselves, as athletes are specifically prohibited from political activity by the Olympic Charter, and it is up to the IOC to enforce its rules. It may be more challenging outside the official venues, if activists and/or spectators organize spontaneous demonstrations or find more creative means to express their views.
Terrorism is the least predictable and most dangerous challenge for Russian officials in hosting the Sochi Olympics. It is not a unique threat, of course; every host nation has had to prepare for possible terrorist attacks since the tragic Munich Games in 1972. More recently, there was a bombing during the 1996 Atlanta Games. However, Russia faces a greater and more specific threat than most from domestic Islamist separatists, some of whom have international connections and support.
And it must defend the world’s largest territory during a three-week long, high-profile event. After creating the much-publicized “ring of steel” around Sochi, it will likely be impossible to apply a similar security standard to the rest of the country. Experts suggest that terrorists are most likely to attempt attacks just outside secure areas, where large crowds are present but fewer protective measures are in place, as was the case in Atlanta. Inside the “ring of steel,” security forces will be hard pressed to balance their first responsibility—maintaining safety—with a degree of flexibility in responding to political activity.
Hopefully, Russia and its leaders will rise to all of these challenges and host a safe, efficient and enjoyable event in Sochi. In thinking about the problems Moscow may face, and Russia’s geopolitical aims, it is easy to forget the central objective of the Olympic movement—bringing a degree of international cooperation and cross-cultural contact to a divided world. None of this can succeed if Russia does not.