The Cold War Politics Of Sochi: How The Olympics Are Widening The Divide Between The US And Russia

Aaron Kaufman

There is a palpable chill sweeping across Russia, and it’s not coming from the wintry slopes of Sochi.

When the 2014 Winter Olympics officially opens on Friday, it will mark the first time since 2000 that the United States has not sent a president, vice president or first lady to lead its delegation.

Instead, President Obama appointed Former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, tennis legend Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow to head its delegation of athletes, a gesture that amounts to a tacit, yet unmistakable, political rebuke of the Kremlin’s domestic and international policies.

Both King and Cahow are openly gay. Russia has come under fire for its law restricting gay-rights activities, drawing the ire of Olympic sponsors, a UN panel and gay rights advocates across the world.

Athletes are restricted by IOC rules from engaging in political protests while competing, but the selection of King and Cahow to lead the delegation serves as a way for the US to circumvent the IOC guidelines and implicitly condemn Russia’s treatment of its LGTB community.

The decision to send Napolitano is no less strategic.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden showdown where Russia granted the NSA whistleblower temporary asylum, a series of high-profile cyber-attacks on the US presumed to be coordinated by the Kremlin, and a well-publicized rift between the West and Russia on how to handle the Syrian crisis and the Arab Spring, Napolitano’s appointment sends the message that the United States is not to be trifled with on issues of defense and security.

A History of Conflict at the Games

This isn’t the first time the Olympics have been used as a political instrument, nor is it the first time that the United States have found a political adversary in Moscow at the Games.

In the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, the US hockey team upset the Soviets en route to winning Olympic gold.

The event further fueled the rivalry between the nations’ athletic programs and intensified an already stressed diplomatic divide between the Cold War foes.

Tensions were already high after the US boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow a few months prior. After the “Miracle on Ice” incident at Lake Placid, the Soviet Union opted to boycott the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Though the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russia’s leadership has recently embarked on a political trajectory that has the West fearful that it is too closely following in the footsteps of its predecessor government.

For its part, Russia seems keen on fanning the flames and goading the US into a more feverish war of words.

It does so in an effort to showcase its growing influence and authority on the global stage, while publicly challenging the United States presumed supremacy as an international power.

The New Arms Race

The Sochi Olympics are estimated to cost $51 billion, a price tag $10 billion higher than the second most-expensive in history, the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

This figure well surpasses Russia’s estimated costs from when it won the Games in 2007, where it projected total expenses at $12 billion. Not only will it be the most expensive, but also, it will cost more than every prior Winter Olympics combined.

Russia’s extraordinary spending for the event should not be dismissed. A little more than two decades ago, the Soviets used similar spending tactics in its arms race with the United States to exhibit its ability to keep pace militaristically with the preeminent superpower.

While that endeavor eventually bankrupt the communist nation, driving it to extinction, the spending tactic was utilized as a means to showcase the USSR as a global authority.

The cost of Sochi sends a message to the world that Russia has moved past its economic insolvency and has the means and will to invest heavily in its national interests.

The Obama Administration is finding that its influence in Russia has diminished rapidly, and with Russia’s newfound confidence and willingness to stand in opposition to the United States, relations between the two nations are beginning to emit a Cold War aura.

Why the Sudden Rift Between the Two Nations?

In order to understand why Russia has retaken to butting heads with the West, it’s important to understand that the way the United States and Russia contextualize their relationship is fundamentally different.

The general consensus in Russia is that the US proved a feeble partner in helping it rise from the ashes of the USSR after its dismantling.

Instead of helping to lift up the newly formed democratic nation, the West reveled in its triumph over communism and took to isolated Russia, championing its own interests instead of working collaboratively with the country.

Capitalizing on that narrative, Vladimir Putin embarked on a campaign to revive the Soviet magniloquence that helped catapult the USSR to such international prominence when he first took power in 2000.

Others in positions of authority embraced the new tenor, unwilling to remain silent in their objections to US practices.

Sergei Karaganov, honorary chair of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, believes Russia did all that it could to work in tandem with the United States and the Western world.

“Lord knows, we tried,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the consensus of most of our elite today is that Russia was fooled, betrayed, and sidelined. Now we don’t regard the West as an enemy, but it’s lost its magnetism, its former aura of infallibility, for us.

We can work with it on various issues, but we’re not going to be trusting, as we were in those early post-Soviet days…. We have very different interests. In terms of economics, geopolitics and culture Russia is located elsewhere. We are coming to better understand who we are.”

Ultimately, Russians believe that they should be allowed to establish national identity without interference from the United States. A national identity that is forged atop a legacy of numerous revolutions, compelling Putin’s government to seek ways to buttress its centralized and authoritarian rule so as to mitigate the prospects of future rebellion.

This has fostered tension between the US and Russia in how to approach high-profile revolutions in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

On the United Nations Security Council, the countries have repeatedly found themselves at a persistent impasse on a multitude of issues, undermining the UN’s ability to intervene in and quell various conflicts.

On the domestic front, Russia takes the view that the West should leave Russian affairs to the Russian people.

Putin and Russian foreign policy bureaucrats believe economic sanctions like the US Magnitsky Act, which levies sanctions against Russian officials who are judged to have committed human rights violations, are overly intrusive.

These sanctions come from the West’s disapproval of Russia’s growing divergence from secularism and implementation of restrictions on human rights, Internet freedom and free speech.

But Russia believes the US embraces a double standard in its diplomatic approach to Russia and the rest of the world.

“The Magnitsky Act is an example of pure double standards,” said Alexei Pushkov, chair of the State Duma’s international affairs committee.

“Why single out Russia? They know if they made it universal, they’d have to extend it to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, China, and so on. They don’t want to deal with that…. We’re willing to engage in civilized rivalry with the US, but what we see is this fervent desire to make us over into the Russia they want. It’s curious that they accept China pretty much as it is, but not us,” he said.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Russia likely hopes to capitalize on the Sochi Olympics by using them as proclamation to the world that it has no intention of relinquishing its role as the foremost antagonist to the United States.

Once the Games are over, expect Russia to continue to aggressively pursue an agenda that runs afoul with US interests, forcing the international community to take sides.

If that happens and the tension rises beyond its current levels, we could find ourselves unexpectedly pitted against Russia in a second Cold War.

Top Photo Credit: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

Aaron Kaufman


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