Is Putin Planning to Use the Olympics Again as a Cover for Aggression?

Is Putin Planning to Use the Olympics Again as a Cover for Aggression?

November 9, 2013 at 7:45pm

by Paul Goble

Paul Goble (@PaulGouble1) is a longtime specialist on the non-Russian peoples of Eurasia. For the last nine months, he has been preparing a Sochi Countdown each Friday on

Moscow’s moves over the last few months demonstrate that Russian President Vladimir Putin views the Sochi Olympiad as a useful occasion for further repressions against the peoples within the borders of the Russian Federation, but there are increasing indications that he may be planning to use them, just as he did the 2008 Beijing Games, as a cover for aggression against one or more neighboring countries.

Six years ago, Putin launched a war of aggression against Georgia on the same day when many of the world’s leaders were in Beijing to attend that of the opening ceremony of that year’s Summer Olympiad, thus exploiting the difficulties Western governments inevitably faced in terms of diplomatic niceties and government communications and delayed if not in fact limited their ability to respond promptly and forcefully to Putin’s actions. Given that these same governments are now pressuring Georgia to come to terms with what Russia did then, Putin has every reason to think that such a strategy could work again.

Is the Kremlin leader in fact thinking about that now? There are three reasons to think that he may be — even though there is as yet no clear indication that he has made a final decision. First, over the last several months, Putin has imposed economic sanctions against Ukraine, Moldova, and Lithuania and sponsored media campaigns against the efforts of these and other countries in the former Soviet orbit to integrate themselves with Europe rather than remain subordinate to Moscow. Some of this rhetoric is extreme and resembles the content and tone of Russian commentaries about Georgia in the summer of 2008.

Second, Russian defense officials, including the incumbent defense minister, have identified NATO’s expansion to the east as a threat to Russia exceeded only by the one that terrorism poses. They have expressed outrage about normal NATO exercises in the Baltic region even as Russia and its partners have conducted larger and more aggressive ones in the same place. And they have complained about calls from some Ukrainian officials that the Russian base in Sebastopol be closed.

One can easily imagine a scenario in which Moscow could suggest links between a terrorist act in the Caucasus or in Crimea with the need for the Russian Federation to take military action in the region or the peninsula, something that at least a few of the ethnic Russians in both places could be counted on to support or, even worse, engage in provocations designed to “force” Moscow to act.

And third, with such an act of aggression and by linking it to terrorism, Putin could distract attention from the corruption and incompetence on display in the run-up to the Olympiad and to the likelihood that the games themselves will be anything but well run. The Russian president could thus portray any criticism of him or the Games as criticism of Russia itself, something he has done before because it has worked so well both at home and abroad.

There are just two things that may constrain the Kremlin leader from taking this step. On the one hand, the West, having seen the use of this strategy before, may be more prepared to react. Indeed, if efforts to keep senior officials from European countries and the United States from attending the Sochi Games work, Putin will not be able to count on the disorder that their visits to Beijing entailed.

On the other, such a use of force given the current situation Russia finds itself at home and abroad could prove far more self-destructive. Such aggression would isolate Russia for far longer than it moves against Georgia did and at a time when its economy is in far more serious trouble. And it could even trigger movements among politicians in Moscow to replace the current regime and among ethnic and regional groups in the Russian Federation to achieve independence.

Putin knows all this. The best defense against the risk that he will nonetheless follow his worst nature is for those in the region and those in the West to be aware of the dangers – and to be prepared to respond.

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