If Russia presents a new image to the world in Sochi, it would go a long way towards revitalizing the troubled U.S.-Russian relationship.
Torch bearers hold their torches during the Olympic torch relay in Gorno-Altaysk, 3,641 kilometers (2,262 miles) east of Moscow. Photo: AP
After years of non-stop handwringing about the preparations for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, they’re finally arriving in less than two months – and bringing with them the potential to change the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations.
With recent signs that President Vladimir Putin is doing everything possible to make the Sochi Olympics as non-controversial as possible – including the creation of a new "protest zone" in Sochi, softening his stance on Russia's controversial LGBT laws and mulling over a potential amnesty proposal for Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot – there are five ways that the Sochi Olympics might actually be able to reset the reset.
Here’s what needs to happen during the Sochi Olympics to make that a reality:
We have to see Russian President Putin in a light we’ve never seen him before. The #1 factor that influences the state of U.S.-Russian relations is how the West perceives Russia’s top leader. As Putin goes, so goes our view of Russia. Thus, the Sochi Olympics give Putin a global stage to overhaul his image in the West.
With every event from the Opening Ceremony to the Closing Ceremony tightly scripted and optimized for his image and PR, you can be assured that on state-run Russian TV, he’ll be everywhere at once – congratulating Russia’s gold medalists, making the rounds with his European ski buddies, and showing off the city’s sparkling new infrastructure to global visitors.
The only question is how the West is going to see him in its own TV coverage of the Olympics – as a “bored school boy" with a slouch, as a dour authoritarian still cracking down on protesters and LGBT activists, or as someone who’s mellowed around the edges. It’s either going to be more of the same Putin macho image or we’re going to get a new Putin that the West feels that it can do business with.
Russia needs to prove that it follows global norms for human rights. These Sochi Olympics have the potential to go down in history as another Berlin 1936 or Mexico City 1968, with athletes publicly attempting to shame Russia in front of the world. Which is why Putin’s recent moves have been so interesting.
Ahead of the Sochi Olympics, he’s now considering offering a form of amnesty to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Greenpeace 30 and Nadezdha Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot. That’s huge. There's no way that Putin wants to be answering questions about human rights in front of the world's billions tuning in to the Winter Olympics.
More than that, there are now signs that Russia continues to backtrack on two issues that have been particularly irksome to the West – Russia’s clampdown on the LGBT community and Russia's sometimes heavy-handed approach to domestic political dissent.
The FSB (the new KGB) is even considering the possibility of allowing protests in Sochi during the Olympics. While you can bet that any protest zones in Sochi will be heavily sanitized, and that Sochi is going to be sealed down tighter than any event in the history of the world, it’s still a notable concesion from Putin and Russia.
Russia has to be able to pull off the Winter Games without any embarrassing glitches. The Sochi Olympics are the equivalent of a global debutante ball, and Russia is going to go all out to prove that it belongs not on the BRIC periphery, but solidly in the club of the G8.
You can view all of Russia’s global meddling over the past few years – with Syria being just the latest example – as a desperate plea to be treated as an equal partner at the global negotiating table. If the Winter Games go off without a hitch, Russia can knock one of its giant chips off its shoulders.
To that end, Russia is hoping that the $50 billion invested in gleaming new infrastructure – new stadiums, new venues, new hotels, and new infrastructure in the mountains – actually pays off. Everything is going to be brand-new and glammed up for the international guests.
But a lot can go wrong – the Olympic Villages could turn out to be giant Potemkin Villages if it doesn’t snow as much as it's supposed to, if the competition venues get low marks and if Russian athletes don’t perform at the highest levels and bring home gold.
There are a number of psychological dimensions to the way the Olympics will impact Russian national identity, and this fact shouldn't be dismissed when it comes to understanding Russia's ambitions in the world.
Russia needs to show that the New Russia is not the same as the Old Russia. The typical narrative about Russia is that it is a demographically-exhausted country, running on oil fumes, cracking down on any dissent (whether Greenpeace or Navalny or Pussy Riot) and only getting a bit of respect because it has more nukes than anyone else.
What Russia has to show is that it has a bright new future that is accepting of not just opposition by young Navalny supporters, but also of a multi-ethnic post-Soviet Union that borders the Arab world.
The secret weapon here might be the 25,000 volunteers that Russia is bringing to Sochi – it's a youth movement of young Russians who are excited about the future of their country.
That means Olympic visitors are going to be surprised. If they’re expecting a bunch of babushkas selling stale potatoes with Lenin pins on their lapels, they’re going to get something very different. They’re going to see a veritable youth movement in Sochi, all dressed up in Rainbow volunteer uniforms.
Russia needs to be able to capitalize on U.S. domestic weakness without appearing to be exploiting the U.S. The big wildcard – how Obama is perceived at home by U.S. domestic audiences – is largely out of the hands of the Russians. No matter how many gold medals Team USA brings home, it’ll do zip for Obama’s reputation. What Obama needs is something that restores his image and reputation.
What the Russians do control, though, is how they react to new overtures from a weakened Obama. With the 2016 U.S. presidential elections now looming in the future, Obama may be willing to make some concessions to the Russians – or at least, make it to the negotiating table at the G8 Summit in Sochi in June – in order to show American audiences at home that he has had some foreign policy successes in his second term.
Or, at the very least, he can use a “Russian breakthrough” to distract domestic critics from the reality of endless Washington budget battles and a wildly unpopular Obamacare program.
By next June, when the next G8 Summit is scheduled for Sochi, we might actually be talking about the prospects for President Obama making good on his earlier promise (made before this year’s G20 Summit in Petersburg) to meet President Putin face-to-face in Russia. Who knows?
Sochi may yet become the new Yalta – a Russian resort town that grows to global prominence as a place to broker deals. In December, for example, we’ve already seen Putin and Yanukovich use Sochi as a destination to discuss the future of Ukraine.
Just think of the possibilities if Sochi helps to reset the reset. During the Winter Olympics next February, we could see Michelle, Sasha and Malia (but not Barack) dressed to the nines and wandering the grounds of Sochi’s new Olympic Park. Obama, if he decides to visit, could snap selfies of himself with U.S. Olympic athletes.
Or, better yet, what about Barack and Vladimir sitting next to each other at Sochi’s Bolshoi Ice Dome before the start of an epic Russia-USA gold medal ice hockey match? Then you would know that something fundamentally had changed in the way the U.S. and Russia view each other.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.