The month of February sees the opening of the winter Olympic Games in Sochi as a primary example of the use of soft power by the government of Vladimir Putin. This is not a new phenomenon. Moscow is following in the footsteps of other states that have tried to gain preeminent status and international recognition by staging very expensive international sports events. The preparations and management of the Sochi games and its successful outcome have taken years of construction of new facilities and a public relations campaign through international mass media.
In the recent past, the case of China and South Africa stand out. The success of Brazil in staging the summer Olympics of 2016 and the World Football Games of 2014 are also examples of these trends in international affairs, as much as the example of Qatar in obtaining FIFA’s approval to stage another World Football extravaganza in the future.
Threat of Terrorism
Putin’s government has invested enormous financial resources, perhaps over $40 billion, in staging these games with an elaborate and sophisticated security apparatus to prevent terrorist disruptions. The government in Moscow is faced with an ever growing trend in Islamic terrorism on its territory, centred on the clash between the Russian state and separatist Islamist groups that have already engaged in war, guerrilla warfare, and bloodthirsty massacres of civilians in the Caucasus and in major Russian cities, including Moscow and Volgograd.
The media spotlight on Islamist terrorism in Russia often neglects to contextualise it as common denominator in international security that is faced by the Unites States, China, Israel, the United Kingdom and India. From the Near East to the Caucasus, from Kashmir to Xinjiang, global Jihad has exploited real or imaginary local grievances threatening blood and mayhem magnified by the sometime pathological interest of the mass visual media in such events.
It is relevant from this standpoint to remember the most successful example of Olympic terrorism that saw its initial chapter in Munich in 1972, where Palestinian terrorists succeeded in acquiring greater international status in the struggle against Israel. This had come in the wake of the policies of Yasser Arafat in the employment of international terrorism to gain support and sympathy from Arab, Islamic, and Third World countries. This episode in the history of the Olympic Games boosted the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s success in its political goals as Israel came to be constantly threatened by a coalition of states and NGOs in their attempt to delegitimise the Jewish state in the international system.
Tracing the Roots of Islamist Resurgence
Vladimir Putin’s principal substantive goal is to assert and enhance Russia’s prestige and status in the international system and to boost the image of rational policy making and political stability in the Russian Federal Republic. Additionally, the success of such Games is premised on the idea that Moscow will fight Islamic extremism and Islamic ethnic separatism all the way. The Russian Federal Republic demonstrated this national security goal by engaging in two bloody wars in Chechnya and by locating in Sunni Salafist and Jihadist groups as one of the threats to its national security.
All too often, pundits, observers, academics, and the international mass media neglect the fact that the Russian Federal Republic is a multi-national state that has increasingly seen separatists groups rooted in Islamic and ethnic history resentful of Moscow’s rule. Sochi itself is a city that has its historical roots in the Circassian nation that was conquered by Russia in the 19th century and that saw death and exile for a great majority of the native population. It was a historical tragedy that saw large numbers of Circassians move to Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, among other places, and where the memory of the Russian conquest is still vividly impressed in the minds of new generations of Circassians, though today the major threats to Russian internal security have come from Chechen and Daghestani Islamists.
It should also be remembered that the Islamist resurgence in the area is aided and abetted by a local political and economic culture that is shaped by corruption and criminal activities best described as mafia-like organisations that can be integrated very easily into an Islamist ideology.
Showcasing Putin’s Policies
The successful outcome of the games stands out as another chapter in Putin’s policies in reorganising the Russian political and economic system, thus attracting foreign investments and tourism. This event would place Russia beyond the normal parameters of a nation that engages internationally as a chief provider of gas, oil and other commodities, in addition to the traditional and successful export of weapon systems. Thus, the games underline the notion of economic diversification and modernisation that has been a centrepiece of the development of post-Soviet politics in Russia.
The events at Sochi should also be placed within the context of Russia’s international relations and its primary and strategic role as a member of the United Nations Security Council and its projections of power in the former Soviet republics, the Middle East, and the Far East. The Olympic Games follow the successful policy of Moscow in enticing Ukraine away from the European Union and co-opting Kiev into a Russian-led political and economic bloc that already includes among other states Belorussia, Kazakhstan and Armenia. Moscow’s adroit leverage on oil and gas supplies and credits to Ukraine, including the investments in Ukrainian bonds worth over $15 billion, was an example of Putin’s strategic vision for Russia.
Above and beyond the immediate concern for Islamist terrorism, the American-led Western boycott of the Soviet Olympics in Moscow in 1980, following the invasion of Afghanistan, looms large in the memory of the Russian leadership. Criticism of Russia’s domestic policies regarding its perspectives on homosexual rights brought a torrent of Western mass-media hysteria about the absence of human rights in Putin’s country. Thus, Moscow’s preparation for the games came to also include amnesty for Western activists of Green Peace that were held under charges of piracy and the release of Mikhail Borisovich Khodorkovsky, the Russian oil magnate serving sentence for corruption and illegal appropriation of Russian gas and oil.
Challenges of Olympic Proportions
All too often critics forget that staging spectacular Games is a challenging economic planning proposition. International sports events, in recent times, have been a symbolic and economic enterprise that have encouraged the rise of countries such as South Korea, China, South Africa, and Brazil to international pre-eminence. Olympic Games are no easy proposition for countries that host them whether Montreal in 1976 or Athens in 1996, they can be the cause for economic dislocation.
Of course, more than anything else the threat of Islamist terrorism looms large. Several “national liberation movements” need mass media coverage more than ever before. The Chechen wars and the rise of Islamic terrorism in the Caucasian region at large, and by extension in Russia itself, have never matched the success of the Palestinian drive for national recognition and its support by Arab and Islamic countries in the international arena.
The Islamist Chechens who wish to have a separate state now have the opportunity to present their case before the world by disrupting the Games. What Chechen separatists may have forgotten is that regardless of their actions, they are challenging a great power on its home turf. In both Russian and Soviet history, the Chechens have suffered innumerable tragedies by misunderstanding Moscow’s national interests and Putin’s aim of restoring Russia’s power. Regardless of any disruptions, the Games will go on, as in Munich in 1972 after the Palestinian massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes. It is also conceivable, given trends in international relations, that Chechen association with Islamism will not be the most successful tactic in achieving international political recognition.
Staging the Sochi Games is another crucial episode in the development of international sports as an example of power articulation in the international system.
Dr Morris M Mottale is Professor of International Relations and Comparative Politics, and Chair, Department of Political Science at Franklin University, Switzerland. He is also associated with the Taylor Institute for Global Enterprise Management.