As the 1-month countdown to the Sochi Winter Olympics begins, attention is focusing on the political significance of this event not only for Russia itself but also for the rest of the world, whose good will and participation is, theoretically at least, an important part of the proceedings. While the propaganda value of the games for the Russian government in terms of national pride and Putin’s personal prestige doesn’t need to be underscored, it’s perhaps a good idea to take a step back and look at the Sochi games in terms of one or two aspects of the international situation in which the games are about to go live.
It hasn’t escaped the attention of even the least disputatious Western commentators that – viewed on the map – the Black Sea coastal resort of Sochi is “not far from Chechnya”, and “in a rough neighborhood” (near the North Caucasus). The wisdom of holding an extended high-profile international sporting event in what is essentially a war zone has now and then been questioned by observers with no particular political or ideological ax to grind. But since what is involved, on paper at least, is a show of international solidarity and Olympic ideals, most have decided to give the Russia’s authorities the benefit of the doubt. While at the end of 2013 the doubts were increased by the bombings in Volgograd – was this not a warning by terrorists intent on sabotaging the event? – what has slipped from the headlines and many or most of the pre-games analyses is a consideration of other events beyond Russia’s borders in which Russia plays an important and well-nigh decisive role.
In March last year Foreign Policy published an article by Brookings Institution analyst Fiona Hill in which she outlined what she saw as the real reason for President Putin’s support of Syria’s Bashar Assad. It was connected, she wrote, with Putin’s fear of the situation in the North Caucasus and Chechnya (expressed in a series of interviews he gave in 2000) as “the continuation of the collapse of the USSR…. If we did not quickly do something to stop it, Russia as a state in its current form would cease to exist”:
For Putin, Syria is all too reminiscent of Chechnya. Both conflicts pitted the state against disparate and leaderless opposition forces, which over time came to include extremist Sunni Islamist groups. In Putin’s view — one that he stresses repeatedly in meetings with his U.S. and European counterparts — Syria is the latest battleground in a global, multi-decade struggle between secular states and Sunni Islamism, which first began in Afghanistan with the Taliban, then moved to Chechnya, and has torn a number of Arab countries apart.
As Hill was not slow to point out, in reality the two conflicts have little in common – while the Chechen wars were mainly localized within the North Caucasus region, with occasional outbreaks of terrorism elsewhere in Russia, in Syria the whole of the country is embroiled in a ferocious civil war, and Assad does not have at his disposal the resources that were available to Putin in his confrontation with Chechnya. He has been unable to eliminate opposition adversaries abroad in the way that Putin did, and – far from being localized – the Syrian conflict has spilled over into the entire Middle East region, threatening its stability. As Hill put it:
Chechnya is in a bad neighborhood, but Syria is in a terrible neighborhood, and the effects of the Syrian conflict cannot be contained in the way that Chechnya’s were.
Undeterred, Putin and the Russian military leadership press on with their obstinate support for the Syrian dictator, thus bringing ever closer the likelihood of the disintegration of a state that is of the greatest geopolitical importance to Russia’s own security. The endgame strategy is to blame the whole disaster on the United States, for having supported democratic movements associated with the Arab Spring.
Such is the context in which the Sochi games are now to be held. Clearly, in a state like modern Russia, where the triumph of propaganda is of more importance than diplomacy or attempts at international reconciliation, the scene is set for a large and prominent display of public advocacy and agitprop. With the ramping up of its counter-information channel Russia Today – a Russian-language version is now being added – and the dismantling of the RIA Novosti agency, Moscow is about to make maximum political capital from the games, forcing Western nations to take a position in what the Russian authorities view as a conflict between “values” – the liberal, tolerance-espousing values of the West, with its respect for gay rights and the freedom of dissenters and minorities, and the uncompromising, conservative fusion of Orthodoxy and Islam that is beginning to emerge as the founding ideology of the Eurasian Union. By linking the Volgograd bombings to the alleged activities of Syrian and North Caucasus extremists, by raising the profile of Doku Umarov and his “Caucasus Emirate”, and by issuing reminders about the Boston attacks of last April, Moscow is making sure that, as Western nations prepare to send their athletes to Sochi, their governments are compelled to take sides in a Kremlin-prepared choice of alternatives.