Russia's dangerous Olympic theatre

At the Opening Ceremony for the XXII Olympic Winter Games

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi are just over halfway through their 16-day competition schedule.

Sochi was chosen to host the event at two clusters of venues for its beauty as well as its political importance to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of a reinvigorated Russia.

The two games sites have come under criticism for their poor state of completion, with scaffolding still on major buildings and roads partially built, according to journalists and spectators.

The games themselves have been relatively free-flowing as an expected three billion people are expected to watch the competitions on television around the world.

Mr Putin hopes the event will be a public relations boost for his country. And to a large extent it certainly has been so far.

He personally lobbied the International Olympic Committee to ensure Sochi was picked and has invested a good deal of Russia’s – and his own – prestige on the event running without a hitch.

However, what should have simply been a story about common humanity joining together in a competitive, friendly sporting environment was overshadowed by a series of terror attacks in the months leading up to the games.

These attacks have encouraged the unfortunate description of the games as the most dangerous ever.

The restive Caucasus region causing trouble

Bombings in Volgograd, some 600 kilometres from Sochi, in December killed 34 people and injured 72 others. Militants from the restive Caucasus region are suspected to be responsible for the attacks.

Extra security for the games, in the shape of 40,000 law enforcement and military personnel, were sent to the venues by Mr Putin to ensure no further planned attacks could affect the games.

At this point, even if no attacks occur during the final days of the games (with the Winter Paralympics starting March 7 to March 16) the militants have already achieved a significant victory for their cause.

Media attention is a large percentage of measuring the success of terror attacks, and the world is now watching with knowledge about the plight of the Caucasus separatists.

International worry about athlete and spectator safety has meant that much of the media attention has been focused on whether Russian authorities can keep the games secure.

This is still a genuine concern. Yet with the amount of physical security apportioned by the Russian government, an attack on the sporting events is unlikely. But the security preparations still do not guarantee that militants will be unable to attack the games.

By their very nature, suicide bombers like the ones in Volgograd are not deterred by hi-visibility jackets or police units and can essentially strike at any time or place of their choosing.

The burden is on the authorities to interdict the militants before they reach the venues, and that is no easy task. Russian intelligence and law enforcement is capable, but still human. The authorities must be lucky 100% of the time, whereas a bomber need only be successful once.

Again, even if an attack does little physical damage, the media attention it will generate will be enough to claim a symbolic victory over the Russian state.

Keeping the Winter Olympic Games safe is therefore essential from both a domestic and international perspective. A lot is riding on its success.

Russia’s resurgence?

Mr Putin’s public image will be strengthened if the event can be completed without disaster. Hosting either the Summer or Winter Olympic Games is an opportunity to showcase a country’s competence while favourably shaping the globe’s perspective of the host nation.

Mr Putin is widely considered to be one of the more unsavoury characters in geopolitics but there’s no denying that Russia is a more potent and vigorous nation today since he has been at the helm.  

He has taken Russia from disorientation after the collapse of the Soviet Union and near anarchy, to a robust and rising economy. The path to success has been a bumpy ride for Russia, with the chaos in the 1990s nearly eviscerating the Russian national identity.

After almost a decade of churning out hydrocarbons and selling them to an energy-hungry Europe, Russia would like the world to believe it is back on the global stage once again.

Brokering a deal with the US over Syria’s chemical weapons was a theatrical - but effective - public relations boon for Mr Putin, increasing Russia’s international standing. A terror-free and flowing Winter Olympic Games should help lift Russia’s prestige even further.

But the fact remains that Russia still faces very similar constraints today as it did throughout its tenuous Soviet era. Both a largely unfavourable geography and a declining population, among other problems, will make any resurgence troublesome, regardless of Mr Putin’s ambitions.

Moscow theatre

Understanding the reality of Russia’s constraints in this light, the prestige of the Olympics could very well be seen as another classically Russian theatrical step to convince both the international community and the Russian people that everything is on track.

The reality is probably starkly different, as the very dangerous threat of militant activity in the Caucasus perfectly illustrates.

Mr Putin surely chose the city of Sochi for the Olympic venue to show the world he had the militant problem under control.

It was a risky bet, bordering on dangerous, but it might be enough to convince those who need convincing (Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, etc) that Russia is back again as a regional force to contend with.

Theatre aside, Mr Putin’s Russia still has a long way to go before finally proving that the country is ready to roll once more.

Russia is stable, sure, but given their fluctuating political history and the rapid evolution of both the European energy market and a shifting global stage of blossoming and strong competing economies, it definitely has its work cut out.

Nathan Smith has studied international relations and conflict at Massey University. He blogs at INTEL and Analysis

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