The decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban the Russian delegation from the 2018 Winter Olympics was predictable—and the indignant response in Moscow was ready. Hesitant voices of clean athletes, who pleaded to be able to partake in the international competition under a “neutral” flag, were drowned out by the long-prepared “patriotic” outcry against the alleged hostile foreign attempt to humiliate Russia (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, December 6). The IOC was described as corrupt and compelled by pressure from the United States; the meticulous work of special commissions investigating Russia’s state-supported doping efforts was ridiculed as lacking any shred of evidence; and the final verdict was rejected without much attention to its real content and message (New Times, Gazeta.ru, December 6). However, that self-righteous campaign was suddenly derailed by a casual remark from President Vladimir Putin, just a day after its loud start. He duly condemned the IOC decision as politicized but rejected the calls to boycott the Olympics, suggesting that the interests of athletes should be put first (Kommersant, December 6). While entirely sensible, this compromise stance was also quite unexpected, leading some commentators to speculate that Putin has gone “soft” and is seeking to play the role of a wise “peace-maker” (Grani.ru, December 7).
The Russian president’s word—which amounts to a dictate—against going forward with the pre-announced boycott was delivered after a public event in which Putin declared his decision to partake in the March 2018 presidential elections. This decision had never been in doubt. But the long postponement had built up expectations of a particularly grand occasion and a special uplifting theme for the extra-short election campaign (RBC, December 6). These expectations have now been disappointed, and the much-anticipated announcement widely left the impression of a poorly orchestrated pseudo-impromptu (Newsru.com, December 7). It appears probable that Putin found it necessary to shift public attention away from the Olympic scandal (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 6). For that matter, Russian socialite and journalist Ksenia Sobchak (daughter of former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak), who has reinvented herself as a daring presidential candidate, was quick to express the opinion on giving full support to clean athletes (Moscow Echo, December 5).
Sobchak has also aggressively targeted the problem Putin cannot touch—severe corruption in Russian sport bureaucracy. The fight against corruption is a trademark theme of another phenomenon of Russia’s political arena, Alexei Navalny, who is continuing his presidential campaign, rejecting the official ban to run (Navalny.com, December 8). Allegations about the state’s role in the systemic doping program center on Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s former minister for sport, whom the IOC has personally banned for life from all future Olympic events (Moskovsky Komsomolets, December 6). Presently, Mutko is in charge of organizing the 2018 World Cup in Russia and so feels completely safe from any prosecution at home (Novaya Gazeta, December 6).
The need to make sure that the final preparations for one of the greatest competitions in world sport go smoothly is perhaps one of the considerations behind Putin’s uncharacteristically mild response to the doping scandal: “…we are partly guilty,” the president actually admitted (Kremlin.ru, December 6). The World Cup cannot be as easily utilized for “patriotic” mobilization as the Olympic Games, not least because the Russian team is not expected to win beyond qualifying for the play-off stage from a rather weak group (Gazeta.ru, December 1). Most Russian cities preparing for the big event will not see the national team at all, but will have the opportunity to host superior foreign soccer teams and greet their fans.
Perhaps a stronger constraint on Putin’s desire to vent his anger at the IOC and other “saboteurs” of Russia’s status as a sport “super power” is mounting corruption, which he can neither deny nor admit to. His oligarchs are increasingly upset with personalized sanctions targeting them, but their attempts to move suitcases of cash to the habitual Western “safe havens” now bring legal troubles (Rosbalt, December 6). Corruption in sports, damaging as it is for Russia’s international reputation, pales in comparison with the spectacular embezzlement stemming from pipeline construction projects contracted by Gazprom to such crony-oligarchs as Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg (Yamalpro.ru, December 7).
The maturing of this system of corruption has determined changes in Putin’s court. He eagerly reshuffles some courtiers but cannot touch others, who have gained a lot of leverage over decision-making, including even the key guidelines for Putin’s next presidential term (Carnegie.ru, December 7). The menacing figure of Igor Sechin, the CEO of state-owned Rosneft who has long been close to Putin, looms large over the Kremlin’s corridors of power as he asserts his influence by pressing financial demands on weaker oligarchs (RBC, December 7). Alexei Ulyukaev, the former minister of economic development, arrested in November 2016 after leaving Sechin’s office with a “gift” that turned out to be a suitcase of $2 million in cash, was made an example of in the new distribution of power (Kommersant, December 8). In his last word to the court, Ulyukaev apologized for partaking in the “senseless bureaucratic dance” and discovering too late the cruelty and injustice of the system, which cares not about the plight of people (Meduza, December 7). Olga Romanova, a legal defender of victims of predatory prosecution, bitterly stated, “We live in the country of victorious Sechin” (Moscow Echo, December 7).
Putin has never been a natural leader of men, and the habits acquired during his long reign have not prepared him for the situation where he can neither take obedience for granted nor perform the role of an arbiter. He would love to cut some of the arrogant “heavyweights” down to size but cannot even fire the deeply compromised Mutko. He understands that the IOC decision is a direct hit to his authority but is unable to find a meaningful and safe way to reciprocate. His vindictive instincts may still push him to punish such small-scale culprits as Grigory Rodchenkov, a key witness to the IOC investigation into the Russian doping system, but he cannot silence too many voices raised against the massive substance abuse in Russian sport. His great triumph with organizing the picture-perfect 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics has been seriously undercut, and no amount of propaganda can promise a success story on which to run for his forthcoming late-autumnal presidential term. He is left with faking confidence and orchestrating shows of public loyalty. But the malignantly corrupt regime continues on a path toward a sudden and inglorious implosion.