For Putin this year’s winter Olympics in Sochi are about much more than hosting the greatest amateur sporting event on the planet. It’s not about the prestige of the event or the economic boost that it provides to the area. Hosting the Olympics should be a symbol of pride for the citizens of Russia. This should be Putin’s main goal.
This is however far from the reality. This is a show of force. It’s a foreign policy statement. This year’s Olympics are the next stage in Putin’s rebirth for Russia.
Putin’s gone all in on this move. He chose Sochi deliberately. This is him saying that not only will I successfully pull off the greatest global event of the year but I’ll do it in one of the most violent regions on earth. It’s a statement directed not only at the west but to his own people as well. In short Putin is saying this – Call it an autocratic oppressive regime if you want…it works.
It’s hard to get in the head of someone like Putin if you’re an American born in the United States. As American’s we’re blessed by land with an amazing geography. The Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans have provided us with an insulation that Russian’s have never known. The Russian’s have been fighting for their very existence ever since the great hordes from the Steppe invaded time and again from the East. Likewise, nations from the other side of the continent pushed back and invaded from the west. Russians survived this constant back and forth quiet miraculously. Their current mentality has been burned into them ever since the 10th century. Their leaders quickly found out that if they were to survive in that geographic position they would need to rule their people with an iron fist. Russian people typically accept this fact and see autocratic rule as necessary for their survival.
Putin is a Russian of the old order. Just like the leaders before him he knows that to control a population as massive and as demographically diverse as Russia’s he needs to rule absolutely. Fear, intimidation, and control are his tools.
Ever since he took office Putin’s main goal has been to re-establish the regional dominance they once enjoyed under the Soviet Union. To do this he’s primarily used Russia’s energy and economic dominance in the region to bully and intimidate former Soviet bloc nations into doing Moscow’s bidding. In fact, every former Soviet bloc country that the West has tried to move into Putin has employed his usual bully tactics. Take Ukraine and Georgia for example. The Ukrainian Orange Revolution was backed by pro democracy western NGO’s. The result was the election of Viktor Yushchenko to the Presidency who was heavily in favor of EU integration. The same outcome happened in Georgia only theirs was called the Rose Revolution. Russian regional dominance was disappearing one former Soviet bloc country at a time. For Putin, the west’s meddling in Ukraine and Georgia via NGO’s was equivalent to an act of war. He first responded by invading Georgia in 2008. The premise was to protect the breakaway Ossetians and Abkhazians from the Georgian government. That was merely an excuse to give Putin the go ahead to send Russia’s “near abroad” a message. More specifically to Ukraine, Putin was saying “The United States can’t protect you. It’s time to remember who the biggest bully on the block is.” This made Ukraine blink. To drive the point home Putin shut off the energy flow to Ukraine and the rest of the EU and imposed severe economic restrictions on Ukraine. The result was a Ukraine beaten into submission and a clear message sent to the west…”stay out of the former soviet bloc countries”.
Western backed NGO’s remain to this day a target for Vladimir Putin. The power of these organizations to incite populist grassroots movements was on full display during the Arab Spring. Putin could feel his own people watch as one autocratic regime after the other began to topple. Ukraine and Georgia became Libya and Egypt. Then came Syria. Russia’s involvement in Syria was very similar to Georgia. Like Georgia Russia has a strategic interest in Syria. However, the message Putin wants to project is far more important. The message is that an authoritarian regime is more powerful than a populist uprising. Directed straight at the west and their agents within Russia the message is clear…Rise up against me and get crushed.
Now that we know how Putin thinks and is motivated we can go back to Sochi. So why have the Olympics in the Caucasus? Some of the best skiing in the world is north of St Petersburg along the border with Finland. Wouldn’t holding the Olympics there be a huge economic boost to one of your most famous cities? Wouldn’t infrastructure in that area be in better shape and more developed? What about the Ural Mountains? None of those locations were chosen. Instead, Putin looked at the map and chose the most violent and volatile area in his country. Threats come from Islamic terrorists, Ethnic nationalists (Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, etc), and the possibility (however slight) of a Georgian invasion of Ossetia and Abkhazia. The decision seems crazy. Why have the Olympics here?
Again we see Vladimir Putin the bully and intimidator. I said before that Putin went all in on this move. He’s gambling big here to send a message all over the world and to his own people.
To the ethnic nationalist’s – This area is Russian territory and it always will be. Resistance is futile.
To the Islamic terrorists – Your days of attacking schools, theaters, and airports are over. The crackdown I’ve started now is just the beginning.
To the Russian people – my way (the Russian way) works. I was able to pull this off in the den of the Caucasus Emirate and kept everyone safe. My tactics were brutal and oppressive but they kept everyone safe. Empower me to expand my methods. I’m willing to bet that the surveillance and the security in this region are there to stay. This just gave Putin an under the radar window to increase surveillance and control permanently.
To the rest of the world – NGO led populist movements don’t work. I’ve proven it in Ukraine, Georgia, and now in Syria. People need to be controlled not free. How else would I have pulled off an Olympics in the Caucasus?