In 2014, Russia's Putin Had an Olympic Year

If the West sees him as an invader, Russians see him as their defender against Western encroachment.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, December 18, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, December 18, 2014.Credit: Reuters

At the start of 2014, the main source of tension between President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Western nations was the treatment homosexual athletes could expect at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. For Barack Obama this was a good excuse not to attend the gorgeous opening ceremony of the Putin Games, the most expensive Olympiad in history. If Putin was put out by the first boycott he faced this year, he didn’t show it.

He wasn’t bothered either by reports in Russia and around the world about the extent of waste, repression, amateurism, corruption and destruction of nature reserves that went into the $50 billion show of Russian might. Sochi was Putin’s moment – the opening ceremony of his Olympic year.

The closing ceremony was already overshadowed by the violent clashes around Maidan Square in Kiev. Through Western eyes, the fall of ally Viktor Yanukovych, his overnight escape to Russia and the rise of a pro-Western government in Ukraine was a blow to Putin’s standing and his plans to reestablish the Russian sphere of influence over former Soviet republics. Putin didn’t see it that way. The Maidan revolution was the signal to embark on a campaign to “defend the rights of ethnic Russians” in Ukraine. First Crimea, which was swiftly occupied and annexed by “little green men” with little resistance, and then a quiet invasion of Ukraine’s eastern regions, where “volunteer” Russian soldiers “on vacation” just happened to take with them their tanks and missile batteries when they arrived to support pro-Russian separatists controlling the area, and undermining the new government in Kiev.

Once again, from a Western perspective, Putin only seemed to be inviting international isolation, sanctions and serious damage to Russia’s economy, at the worst possible timing for him, with the price of oil, on which the distribution of wealth in his kingdom relies, in free fall.

80% approval rating

But the Russian narrative is radically different, and is only strengthened by events. The latest opinion polls from normally reliable research groups in Moscow, which show Putin still enjoying approval ratings of over 80 percent, underline just how the great majority of Russians see that Putin’s actions in Ukraine, as well as his combative attitude towards other neighbors including Georgia, Moldova and the three Baltic states, are just a firm stand for the rights of the Russian people and a fitting response to Western belligerence and NATO’s expansionist policy. After two and a half decades during which Russia was focused inwards on rebuilding itself in the post-Soviet era, tanks, warships and combat jets were once again advancing and confronting a scheming enemy trying to limit the strength and pull the teeth and claws of the Siberian bear, to use the imagery employed by Putin two weeks ago in his annual press conference.

So last Friday Putin signed an updated Russian military doctrine defining NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders as a direct threat to the nation’s security. The year which began with ski and ice-skating competitions ends with an official return to East-West confrontation.

It could all turn around in 2015. Drastic cuts in social budgets and pensions, mass layoffs, especially in industrial towns reliant on producing weapons systems for the reequipping of the Russian armed forces, could yet bring the masses out to the streets, but for now Putin doesn’t seem overly concerned. He wasn’t afraid yesterday to have a court sentence the brother of Alexei Navalny, the only prominent opposition leader still active in Russia, to three and a half years in jail, a clear signal to anyone planning to challenge Putin’s rule. He isn’t afraid to continue dividing and conquering any oligarch who shows too much independence, such as Vladimir Yevtushenkov, who was recently put under house arrest and his energy company wrested away from him. Putin isn’t afraid to continue supporting murderous regimes such as Bashar Assad’s in Syria, as long as he continues enforcing and widening his Russosphere. He even feels confident enough to cancel the annual end-of-year vacation for public employees – as it is, their rubles won’t buy them very much now in the sunny foreign resorts the Russian middle class liked to fly to.

The oil price crisis which lead to the ruble crashing is a serious threat to the stability of Putin’s rule, but it’s still hard to see how it leads to the creating of a significant opposition calling for his removal. Navalny, with his limited base of support, is probably not the man to lead such a movement. There is no challenger on the horizon, within Russia or on the international scene. Who will face Putin? President Obama, who continues to believe that 21st century geopolitics should be run by orderly rules? Chancellor Merkel, whose chief concern is jeopardizing the peace in Europe, bought with so much blood in the previous century?

Rightist Western allies

If the West is determined to keep Putin out of the G8 major nations club (which was rebranded the G7 after the Crimea invasion), there are new alliances to be made with powers such as China and Turkey. Anyway, Putin is not without his supporters in the West, mainly among the rising anti-establishment and anti-European Union parties such as Front National in France, which received generous loans from Russian banks. Even among the isolationist, paleoconservative wing of the Republican Party, there are those cheering on Putin’s challenge of liberal values.

2015 will not be an easy year for the Russian people. But for now they seem prepared to accept economic pain for Russia’s return to equal competition for global hegemony. Putin has convinced them that there’s no choice, and as things look now, there is nothing that will stop him from being there in three and a half years as the host of the 2018 World Cup.

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