There have been two themes about the Sochi Olympics so far – the press accommodations and the security – and both are somewhat dispiriting. More than that: even with Sage Kotsenburg and Bode Miller, they’re a distraction.
In terms of the accommodations, it’s impossible not to feel that the national sporting press comes off as slightly whiny. Yes, Potemkin hotel walls and sewage in the faucets is alarming. But over a billion people globally live in mud huts and actual Russians live in Russia. We can make do.
Security is the second narrative, and it’s a bit of a mud hut itself. Russia has deployed 40,000 security forces around the Olympics site, more than two-thirds the troops NATO still has in Afghanistan. No matter. On Sunday, the House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul helpfully told Fox News that there would likely be a terrorist attack before the Games were over.
Maybe. But the Russians actually do pretty good security, in a blunt, take-no-prisoners and spare-no-hostages kind of way. No, it’s the broader trends that are the concern here, of which the Caucasus are a microcosm.
The real security threat to Russia is Russia itself as evidenced by its history.
About 300 miles to the east of the Games is Chechnya, where Russia fought two brutal wars over the past twenty years. During that time, Chechens have been responsible for some of the most barbaric terrorism since 9/11. Over a hundred dead in a Moscow theater attack in 2002, hundreds more children at a school in 2004, and dozens from train bombings in 2009 and 2010. Many of the attacks were done by women.
It’s a violent place. In 1944, after the Chechens’ alleged collaboration with the Germans, Stalin deported them – every man, woman, and child, in every village – to Central Asia and Siberia. Over 400,000 Chechens and their Ingush neighbors left on boxcars and were replaced by Russians. Some came back in 1957.
More recently, in 2008, Russia started the first inter-European war since Hitler with Georgia, which technically lies about 20 miles east from Sochi. Georgia at the time was a fairly major US ally--not big, but fervent. Georgians had spent half a decade enthusiastically fighting in America’s crises, and when their own came, the Americans did not. Eventually, we helped fly their 2,000 troops home from Iraq before it ended.
Georgia and Chechnya are not unique. Russia is huge and has had violent relations with most of its neighbors. The opening Olympic ceremonies on Friday highlighted its vastness: the nine time zones, both major oceans, steampunk industrialization, and Peter the Great.
Unfortunately, it also has no natural borders. The French have the Pyrenees and the Rhine, the Italians the Alps, and the British their channel. But Russia has only the territory it can conquer at that moment. When the state is weak, it shrinks; when it’s strong, it grows. Always. In 1914, one Norwegian explorer and later diplomat calculated that Russia had been growing at the rate of fifty-five square miles a day for the past 400 years.
This has caused problems. In perhaps the definitive era of European peace, Russia fought one Turkish war in 1828, another involving Europeans in 1853, and still another in 1877, concurrently with a fifty-year campaign to subdue the Caucasus. Eventually Russia fought Japan, where it was humiliated, and then the Germans came, twice. The end of Germany left Russian forces sitting deep in central Europe, where they stayed until their state began to collapse.
Russia thus thinks about power quite a bit. It’s the self-made millionaire of the international system: insecure, sometimes gauche, bedecked in weapons and hyper-attuned to slights. It presses against its neighbors ceaselessly; and only stops when someone makes it.
Nobody likes to hear this. Befriending post-Yeltsin Russia has been one of the great fools’ games of the past fifteen years. Bush was panned, rightfully, for looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing into his soul. Eight unhelpful years and an invasion of a US ally later, Obama made “resetting” relations with Russia a centerpiece of his international strategy. He began by yanking away proposed missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and giving Russia the START missile reduction treaty in exchange for nothing. It didn’t win us much goodwill.
In Syria, Iran, Georgia, Sudan, Zimbabwe, with Snowden and rampant cyber theft, no state is simultaneously more engaged and hostile than Russia. It’s perhaps a modern social commentary that Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law raised more hackles than its support for Bashar Assad, but to each his own.
Since November, Russia has also been deeply involved in the Ukraine crisis, trying to peel a friendly government away from the EU and pro-Western demonstrators. The day before the opening ceremonies, a Russian official helpfully shared a recorded conversation between the US Ambassador to the Ukraine and his boss, Victoria Nuland, who swore at the EU. Swore! But it was offensive enough to the Germans to cause a mild headache.
Ultimately, the problem with having the Olympics in Sochi isn’t the security or the accommodations. The problem is that these narratives – even humorous ones – distract us from the painfully slow realization that autocratic Russia is not a friend.
That’s a painful truth – almost inconvenient, and almost worth a ceremonial rereading of George Kennan’s Long Telegram every five or ten years. But the sooner we learn it, the better for us, and the better for Russia’s neighbors.
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