Alex Massie: Games Putin’s playing

The threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi is one thing, but the character of Russia – and Vladimir Putin – are the reasons why the Games should never have been awarded to Russia, writes Alex Massie
The siege at a Moscow theatre was exploited by Putin to increase his grip on power. Picture: AFP/GettyThe siege at a Moscow theatre was exploited by Putin to increase his grip on power. Picture: AFP/Getty
The siege at a Moscow theatre was exploited by Putin to increase his grip on power. Picture: AFP/Getty

In hisNew Year message to the Russian people, President Vladimir Putin reiterated a promise he has made many times before. “We will remain confident, tough and consistent in our fight to destroy the terrorists completely,” he said. Since he was speaking a matter of hours after the second of two bombings in the southern city of Volgograd one would expect nothing else from Putin.

But, one way or another, Putin has been in power since 2000 and he is no closer to “winning” his own “war on terror” than the Americans are to prevailing in theirs. Putin, of course, argues Russia’s struggle against Islamic fundamentalists in the Caucasus is linked to the US’s battle against al-Qaeda across the Middle East and North Africa.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Perhaps it is, at least in the sense that it cannot be won as conducted in its present state. Putin once promised to “rub out” Chechen terrorists in their “shithouses”. For the past decade the West’s preoccupation with Afghanistan and Iraq has, effectively, given Putin a free hand to do what he wants in the Caucasus, safe in the knowledge that little will be reported and even less condemned.

Even though Volgograd is more than 400 miles from Sochi, the Black Sea resort which will host the Winter Olympics next month, it seems probable that the bombings, blamed on Islamic fundamentalists from Dagestan, were designed to rattle the Russian state in advance of a games designed to showcase Putin’s Russia to the outside world.

Understandably the bombings have raised concerns that Sochi might be targeted once the games begin. The spectre of Munich still haunts the Olympic movement and it sometimes seems as though no Olympic games – whether of the summer or winter variety – can escape the threat of terrorism. London survived intact, however, and we should cautiously expect Sochi’s games to pass off without incident too.

That is, at least in part, a reflection of the fact that Sochi has been turned into a military city for the duration of the games. The five Olympic rings will, effectively, be matched by an equal number of steel rings protecting the city. It is possible, of course, that a bomber may still penetrate the city but, as the Volgograd bombings demonstrated, there are many thousands of softer targets elsewhere.

Should – heaven forbid – the worst happen, it will doubtless be said that the games should never have been awarded to Russia in the first place and certainly not to a city located on the edge of the war-torn north Caucasus. This is an argument that would reach the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. The games should never have been sent to Russia in the first place. Not because of the threat posed by Islamist separatists but because of the character and record of Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president has never hidden who he is. His character has always been on display to those who chose to see. In 2000, as he prepared for the elections that would confirm his status as Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Putin’s backers arranged for a hastily-written biography to be written to show off the new man’s credentials to a public that knew relatively little about the life and rise of this formerly obscure KGB colonel.

It contained this revealing exchange: “Why did you not get inducted into the Young Pioneers until sixth grade? Were things really so bad?” “Of course. I was no Pioneer; I was a hooligan.” “Are you putting on airs?” “You are trying to insult me. I was a real thug.”

This boastful Russian leopard has never changed his spots. Putin’s victory in 2000 was never in doubt. Even so, his allies went to extraordinary lengths to secure his victory. In the weeks before the election Russia was traumatised by a series of bombings targeting apartment buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities. In Moscow alone 224 people were killed in two bombings. The attacks were blamed on Chechens and used as a pretext for both a new Russian offensive in the Caucasus and tightened security in the rest of Russia.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In fact, there is ample evidence that the Moscow apartment bombings were planned and carried out by Putin’s former colleagues in the FSB (the KGB’s successor). It is almost inconceivable that Putin did not know about this. As soon as he was elected the bombings ceased.

The bombings were used to advance Putin’s political interests. In the climate of fear and hysteria dominating Russia then, anyone promising or projecting strength could have been elected. That man happened to be Vladimir Putin.

The essential character of Putin’s regime has never changed. It is a regime that has offered Russians security and certainty which, after the chaos and looting that marked the 1990s, has proved understandably appealing to many Russian citizens. Nevertheless, his regime has never declined the opportunity to heighten those fears and use those fears ruthlessly.

There is, again, ample evidence that the Russian security services knew about, and did nothing to stop, the 2002 siege at a Moscow theatre that ended with the deaths of 129 people and, two years later, the hostage crisis at a school in the North Ossettian town of Beslan that ended with 312 deaths. In each instance these acts of terrorism were exploited by the president to justify both Russia’s wars in the Caucasus and Putin’s increased grip on power in Moscow. These deaths were useful deaths.

Putin’s claim this month that, unlike terrorists, “Russian special units always do their utmost in the course of special operations to protect civilians, women and children” would be laughable if it weren’t also sickening.

The recent release of political prisoners, including the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the dissident punk band Pussy Riot will only fool gullible foreigners. These releases may be welcome; they are also a sop to international opinion that does nothing to alter the fundamental nature of a Russian regime that is, at best, a kind of twilight democracy.

Dissent, as the graves of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko remind us, is dangerous in modern Russia. Politkovskaya and Litvinenko are far from the only regime opponents to have died in mysterious circumstances. The chief suspect in Litvinenko’s death from polonium poisoning, Andrei Lugavoy, was made a member of parliament and thus granted immunity from prosecution – including any attempt by Britain to have him extradited.

As the writer Masha Gessen has observed: “The simple and evident truth is that Putin’s Russia is a country where political rivals and vocal critics are often killed, and at least sometimes the order comes directly from the president’s office.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The chances are – and we should all hope this proves the case – that the Olympic Games in Sochi will pass without incident. If they do it will, in part, be because Russia is a security state. Be that as it may, the character of the Russian state – and the man who leads it – are precisely the reasons why the games should never have been awarded to Russia in the first place.

This, not the threat posed by terrorism nor even Russia’s controversial anti-gay laws which have occasioned so much international controversy, is the real outrage.