The Winter Olympics Begin Under a Cloud of Threat and Controversy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 24

US Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul

The 2014 Winter Olympics, which are estimated to have cost the Russian taxpayer some $50 billion, will be officially declared open this week (February 7) in Sochi by President Vladimir Putin. The games are intended to magnify before the world Putin’s personal achievements and triumphs in rebuilding Russia into a great power. The Olympics are being held in the North Caucasus where, in Muslim-inhabited Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya and adjoining Russian regions (but not in the vicinity of Sochi per se), a non-stop conflict between government security forces and a jihadist underground is daily claiming lives in bomb explosions, including suicide bombings, shootings and heavy-handed anti-terrorist operations. The possibility of terrorist attacks during the Sochi Olympics by jihadist groups that have promised to disrupt the games has caused the Russian authorities to mount a massive security operation by an estimated 50,000 police and security personnel, which has effectively bottled up the games into a high-security zone with limited access by any unauthorized outsiders, including Russian citizens (http://www.interfax.ru/print.asp?sec=1448&id=350361).

On top of security concerns, the foreign and Russian press descending on Sochi to cover the event, has been angrily complaining about designated newly-built hotels being unfinished as the games begin, as well as of dirty rooms that are badly furnished and often unusable. Russian officials and the state-controlled press are angrily pushing back. Putin’s close associate Vladimir Yakunin, the CEO of Russia’s state-owned railroad monopoly RZhD, whose company was heavily involved in the Sochi Olympic site building, accused the West of deliberately lying and “mounting a hysteria [campaign]” to discredit Russia and Putin: “Well-known publications like The Time [Yakunin apparently mixed up The Times of London and Time magazine], The Economist, Spiegel and others have been publishing slanderous editorials with attached caricatures portraying Putin.” Yakunin accused the West of launching a propaganda war on Russia, of ignoring its great achievements in “building the Olympic infrastructure in Sochi,” of spreading lies about rampant corruption, and abusing “the principal of the freedom of the press.” Yakunin compares the present Sochi Olympics with the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which were boycotted by the United States and many other nations because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and concludes: “Nothing much has changed since the Cold War, and the anti-Russian forces that hate our successes are again using a world sporting event” (http://v-yakunin.livejournal.com/81814.html).
 
Russia and the West indeed seem to be on a collision course on many issues, and the Sochi Olympics may further hinder the situation by creating additional splits and ill feeling. Last week, a top foreign ministry official, Mikhail Ulyanov, told Interfax that Moscow and Washington are deadlocked on the problem of the US developing ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems and preparing to deploy such systems in Europe. Moscow may abrogate the 2010 New START treaty limiting Russian and US strategic nuclear weapons, states Ulyanov, if the US continues to develop BMD. Moscow is not interested in negotiating the further lowering of nuclear arms levels, continued Ulyanov, including the so called “tactical” nuclear weapons that are not covered by the New START. According to Ulyanov, there is total deadlock in attempts to reactivate the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty that regulates conventional weapons on the continent, which Moscow stopped complying with in 2007 (http://www.interfax.ru/txt.asp?sec=1483&id=355224).

The New START, signed by presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, the future of which now seems in doubt, is the main material result of the so called policy of “reset” of relations between Moscow and Washington—an initiative announced by the Obama administration in 2009. Today, the “reset” seems to be in shambles. One of the main architects of the Obama administration’s Russian policy was former US National Security Council Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs Michael McFaul, who was appointed US ambassador to Moscow in 2011. This week (February 4), McFaul announced he is resigning from government service and leaving Russia after the end of the Sochi Olympics (in a couple of weeks) to return to California to take up a professorship at Stanford University. On his Twitter account and in interviews to the Russian press, McFaul explained he wanted to be with his family in California after spending five years in Washington and Moscow in the government’s service (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2399926). Such a reason for resigning from a top decorated government post is absolutely alien to the Russian way of doing things, so McFaul’s explanation was not taken at face value by practically anyone in Moscow.

The Russian foreign ministry on its Twitter account promptly reacted to McFaul’s resignation: “Proshayte Mikhail!” In Russian this means goodbye, also implying a rude additional message—“never come back.” The “reset” in Russian-US relations that McFaul was instrumental in organizing, is fully over and its results are null and void; according to Russian liberal website politicom.ru, McFaul did his best, but failed (http://www.politcom.ru/17137.html). Meanwhile, pro-Kremlin sites openly accuse McFaul of being a long-time agent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who came to Moscow to destabilize and change the regime, but failed because of Putin’s superior ability to read trough US plots and control the situation (http://vz.ru/politics/2014/2/4/671045.html). Flamboyant nationalist demagogue and leader of the pro-Kremlin Liberal-Democratic Party Vladimir Zhirinovsky remarked: “Washington managed to organize the ‘Maidan’ protests in Kyiv, but McFaul failed to do the same in Moscow and is being recalled.” According to Zhirinovsky, McFaul was “a good ambassador, who did not want to go to extremes to activate protests in Moscow,” but now he may be replaced “by a new ambassador, like the one in Kyiv,” the Russian politician warned his audience (http://www.polit.ru/article/2014/02/05/al050214).

The chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Alexei Pushkov told Interfax that McFaul was wrong in attempting to build relations simultaneously with Russian officials and with opposition figures and that this impeded his mission. This would seem to be the summery of the official position: get rid of McFaul and hope for a career diplomat to come instead. Pushkov added, “The change of ambassadors will not seriously affect US-Russian relations” (http://www.interfax.ru/news/356057). Indeed, they are at present so frosty, that they can hardly become much worse in the near term.