This was to be the week Vladimir Putin reintroduced Russia to the world: a confident, economically booming power whose influence in Eastern Europe and the Middle East is coming back; whose ability to block and counter the United States is reestablished; and which offers, through Putin, a new model of conservatism for those disenchanted with the liberal West.
Yet that is not how it is turning out. Beginning Friday, the Sochi Olympics are more likely to become a forum for the demonstration of how and why Putin’s rule of Russia has failed — and how his power is ebbing both abroad and at home.
Start with the scene in Sochi. Putin recently said that he “would like the participants, fans, journalists and all those who watch the Games on television to see a new Russia, see its face and possibilities.” Here are the story lines the games so far have created: the Stalinist excess of a record $50 billion spent, of which most may have been stolen; the hate speech directed by Putin at the gay community and the protests that has engendered; and, most ominously, the “black widows” and other terrorists who may stalk the games.
The civilized world will pray that the terrorists don’t succeed. But it may also have cause to reflect on how, exactly, Russia came to have some of the world’s most virulent homegrown Islamic jihadists. The simple answer is that Putin launched his career in 1999 by invading the then-autonomous Caucasian republic of Chechnya. He crushed its secular and democratically elected government, destroyed its capital with indiscriminate artillery fire and then claimed that anyone who resisted was a terrorist whom he would “rub out in the outhouse.” His propaganda proved self-fulfilling, and the extremists he created have endured.
Reflection on Chechnya naturally leads to consideration of Syria, where Putin has backed the regime of Bashar al-Assad in a nearly identical strategy for combatting what began as a mass secular protest movement. The results are the same: the appearance of a Syrian al-Qaeda corps that did not previously exist. A few months ago, many believed that Putin had nevertheless succeeded in resuscitating Assad, and with him Russia’s place in the Middle East. He had prevented U.S. airstrikes and diverted the West into negotiating with the regime.
Yet now Putin’s Syria gambit is curdling. Last week Assad’s envoys to the Geneva peace talks embarrassed even the Russian delegation with their histrionic antics, while the State Department reported that Assad’s fulfillment of a promise to hand over chemical weapons “has seriously languished and stalled.” On the ground, massive deliveries of Russian arms to Assad’s forces have failed to break a stalemate, and independent analysts are predicting a renewed rebel offensive in Damascus this spring.
Syria may not benefit much from these developments, but Russia and Putin are paying a price. A man deeply preoccupied with his self-image as the bare-chested ruler of a superpower saw himself humiliated at an E.U.-Russia summit last week, denied the traditional dinner by Europeans disgusted by his foreign policy. That came after President Obama failed even to mention Russia or its leader in his State of the Union speech. The “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, which allowed Putin to present himself as the natural counterpart to the U.S. president, has been rubbed out.
What about Putin’s new model of authoritarian government based on “traditional values,” such as homophobia? Ask Ukrainians. The story of their political crisis is, to a large degree, a story of Putin’s attempt to install his model in a country that has been bonded to Russia for centuries and where one-sixth of the population is ethnic Russian. This includes the anti-gay agenda: Putin’s surrogates and Russian media have claimed the Western-backed Ukrainian opposition wants to undermine the country’s heterosexual norms.
The Ukraine drama is not yet over, but what we know is that Putin’s ideology was rejected by the vast majority of Ukrainians, who occupied nearly every town hall after the government adopted anti-protest laws imported from Russia. Again Putin will pay a price, in the probable collapse of his dream of a “Eurasian Union” that would rival the E.U. and restore most of Moscow’s Soviet sphere of hegemony.
What about in Russia itself? Putin’s policies play better at home, to be sure. But there, too, all is not well: Once robust economic growth has stalled, the ruble is plunging in value, badly needed foreign investment is scarce and anger at Sochi-style corruption simmers. When the independent Levada center polled Russians last month on whether they wanted Putin to remain president after his current term expires, 22 percent said yes and 47 percent said no. The “new Russia” Putin will unveil in Sochi doesn’t look likely to last.