Regardless of how you feel about the Olympic games, you will be hard pressed to find someone who is genuinely pro-Russian. Even the Russians are split. Of course, getting an accurate gauge on how the Russians actually feel about their Mother Russia and Father Putin is damn near impossible. This is typical in heavily centralized, semi-authoritarian states; it is also typical in any domestically abusive relationship. In the Social Services Docket that is the United Nations, Russia’s file is an interesting one. She was the matriarch of her husband’s empire–left depressed, in debt, and fighting one hell of a drinking problem after her first husband died. Reeling, she sought comfort and protection with the first guy she could find, a ruddy-faced Ruskie by the name of Boris Yeltsin, a well intentioned, but ultimately ineffective drunk who promised much more than he could ever deliver. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2012 report on the Russian Health System, good old Boris achieved the seemingly impossible, presiding over a country whose quality of life and life expectancy had actually managed to drop even lower than their Soviet levels. So much for Russia’s flirtation with western style democracy, after nine years with Boris, Vladimir V. Putin was only too happy to step in.
On paper, Putin seems to have been exactly what Russia needed to turn her life around. In reality, not so much—at least, not for the children of Russia. He is the abusive, possessive, controlling ex-military stepfather that knows how to beat you and not leave marks, and the Russian people are the redheaded stepchildren. Why do you think the Ukrainians are losing their minds right now in Kiev over the Ukrainian government’s pivot away from the EU to Russia? They’ve found out that mommy’s quitting her day job to swing with daddy’s extortionist “business partner” and his wife while her lover films the next episode of “Pipeline Powerplays”. Somebody call social services.
You might be wondering what the hell this has to do with the Olympics, to which I reply: everything. Developing, or “in transition” countries rarely get the chance to host Olympic games, though the games in China and in Brazil reflect the IOC’s vision of the BRICS nations as on the rise. The last time the Russians had a chance to display their prowess, half the world decided not to show. For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia will host the Games. This is as much about International bragging rights as it is demonstrating to the world that your country can hold it’s own. In the pomp and circumstance of international affairs, the Olympics are a host country’s debutante ball. If it goes well, which they seem to be, it will largely be viewed as the acceptance of Putin and the Russian Federation back into the elite society of international power brokers.
To anyone with a feel for Russian Affairs, since Putin’s reelection, things have been a lot less “cooperation” and a lot more “mind your own damn business,” which is why the US State Department basically announced a freeze on diplomatic relations with Russia in the second half of last year. Putin has not shied away from his past as an officer within the KGB, and his understanding of the former Soviet Union as one, single solitary unit that is best controlled from Moscow profoundly shapes his view of the world. The Cold War may have ended, but things are beginning to look a little too familiar to the people who actually had to fight it. Putin has spent the last year and some change attempting to gloss over his game of musical executives with his puppet Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, and his efforts are having mixed results. His most effective tactic so far has been simple misdirection. Giving the Syrians weapons took all scrutiny away from Russia’s domestic issues; yes, the Olympics are bringing attention back to Russia’s anti-gay legislation, but its also putting the issue in the Ukraine on the back burner. Government-backed snipers in Kiev are shooting protest leaders in the eyes with rubber bullets with the intent to blind, and all anyone wants to talk about is how hilariously backwards the construction of Sochi was. Anyone who was surprised by that development shouldn’t have been. I don’t care if it’s been two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, if you grew up somewhere where owning the pinnacle in automotive engineering meant driving a Yugo, nobody should expect you to take pride in your craftsmanship.
But no matter, if the Games go well it will be the Coup de Grace to any remaining opposition to the constitutional Coup d’état that saw Putin’s return to power for another 12 years, at least. If there is a successful attack, then Russia will be able to play the victim and world sympathy will allow Putin to further entrench his rule. And something tells me the Chechens’ (Putin’s least favorite people) will suffer because of it. It’s a political win-win for the world’s most powerful man.
Theatrics have always been central to both the Soviet Union and, now, Putin’s Russia. Unlike his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, who gave so few fucks about world opinion and public image that the famously boozy Boris once ordered his own parliament building be shelled, Putin is incredibly aware of public image, and creating the cult of personality for Putin is legitimately a job-creating enterprise within the Russian government. What the hell else would the million or so bureaucrats who get paid better than private sector workers have to do otherwise? Build basic infrastructure and work towards providing Russian citizens services on par with the countries it is constantly trying to compare itself to? Surely you have noticed the myriad of Putin’s various “exploits,” which are all staged photo-ops that manage to capture perfectly a staggering level of machismo the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Soviet propaganda department closed up shop. Who do you think put one of those photos in every hotel room in Sochi? Putin, you see, is a man with a plan. What plan is that? Why don’t I let Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answer that question:
There is a move to re-Sovietize the region, It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called a customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that…But let’s make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it… It’s distressing that 20 years into the post-Soviet era… so many of the hoped-for indicators of progress are retreating… We are trying to fight that, but it is very difficult.
Or, if you’d rather hear it from a think tank, here’s the European Council on Foreign Affairs’ take on the topic:
Putin’s foreign policy return will see his personal projects and prejudices define Russia’s place in the world… [International] economic projects [are] his desired legacy. Putin’s understanding of the core of the ex-USSR as a natural unit, something young Russian policy-makers are less insistent on, will remain a policy crux. Opportunities to realize this vision will not be ignored. Yet Putin is also withdrawing from the ex-USSR… There is no desire to integrate them but simply to prevent others controlling them through a light-footprint of bases and pipelines.
Russia, as it stands today, faces many of the same problems that it has been facing since the early nineties. Most poignantly, undoing all of the socio-economic damage caused by the massive military-industrial complex required to ensure Moscow’s control of the USSR. The planners of the Soviet command economy managed to maintain the Cold War era arms race with the much wealthier and technologically advanced western nations by diverting their best and brightest into military-industrial capacities. Indeed, as the government became more authoritarian and insular, almost all elements of the Soviet Union were directed towards propping up the political and military structure of the Union. The massive diversions of resources from the other vital economic sectors ultimately proved too great, and the mighty Soviet Union was brought to it’s knees under the burden of it’s own defense.
Oil, specifically, natural gas, was and is how Putin was able to bring the Russian Federation up and out of the ashes that Perestroika and Yeltsin left her in. Unlike Russia, which has had a bit of a tough time getting things back up to speed since the collapse of the Soviet Union (read: rife with corruption), the Ukraine has actually managed to pick themselves up and have been doing fairly well for themselves. This is why they were entering into talks with the European Union; this is also why the Russians are torpedoing the talks. The Ukraine is integral to the Russian CIS and any future economic unions that Putin will attempt. Simply put, mommy’s pimp is not just going to let her go back to her day job. The Ukraine recently pivoted away from the EU because Russia threatened to raise the prices on the gas it ships to the Ukraine through the old Soviet pipelines. Despite the domestic disturbances in Kiev, Russia effectively was able to force the Ukraine to back out of talks with the EU simply by insinuating that gas may stop coming into the Ukraine if the Eurozone deal goes through. Anywhere else, this would be called extortion. In Russia, it’s business as usual.
No matter what happens at the games, Putin will be the one who benefits. No matter what scenario plays out, it will ultimately end with Putin’s image, and less importantly Russia’s image, bolstered. Within the international community, there is a subtle but steady shift in the balance of power, and Putin seems to be taking the lion’s share in this zero sum game. Whether this leads to a second cold war or just to an economic network of armed scrabble contestants leveraging each other’s bad debts while taking orders from Moscow remains to be seen. Either way, the Olympics are the mark of a new era in Russia’s history. So enjoy the Olympics, you’re certainly witnessing history in the making.