Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted the Olympics to showcase his New Russia — strong, competent, self-assured, like him. The Sochi Olympics ended peacefully and the games unfolded without any significant problem. Better yet, Russian athletes topped the medal count. Bravo!
And yet, you can be sure that Putin is not in a celebratory mood. The way things stood during the closing ceremonies, Russia won the Olympics, but it lost Ukraine. That is a losing bargain.
The Ukrainian people launched their uprising because they wanted change at home. You might argue the matter was domestic, an issue for Ukrainians to decide, and so it was. Except that much of what they rose up against was the Russian model — Putin-style autocracy, endemic corruption and excessive influence from Moscow.
The protesters demanded a turn away from Moscow and toward “Europe,” signifying — in sharp contrast to Putin’s Russia — the introduction of meaningful rule of law, human rights, modernization of the political and economic model; above all, the development of a system in which the government works for the good of the country, not for the enrichment of its cronies.
The Ukrainians managed to bring an end to Putin’s string of successive triumphs.
In 2013, Putin put on a winner’s performance. He translated his bare-chested, tiger-hunting antics from the domestic scene to the global stage. Instead of riding al fresco in Siberia, as he did for local consumption, he sent his emissaries to international conferences to show Moscow can still throw around its weight.
It was a good year.
When President Obama painted himself into a corner with a threat to strike Syria, Moscow protected its ally in Damascus and carved out an escape path for Obama with a deal to avert strikes in exchange for Syria’s surrender of its chemical weapons.
As he fortified his country’s position abroad, Putin cracked down on dissent at home.
In his increasingly autocratic regime, critics were silenced and opposition media outlets were smothered. Most recently, Russian authorities blocked access to cable systems for the Dozhd television network. That put the channel’s survival in question.
Ahead of the Sochi extravaganza, Putin even released some of his most internationally prominent critics, the famed Pussy Riot performers, easing international pressure on the human-rights front in time for the arrival of the global media.
Everything was going well. Despite threats of terrorism, and notwithstanding some snafus with journalists’ lodging and the climate’s stubborn persistence in remaining subtropical, the games were a success.
But Ukraine spoiled Putin’s party. The raging flames of Independence Square in Kiev glowed as a warning that autocracy is not permanent; the bloodshed in the streets a sign that it doesn’t go without a dirty, cruel fight.
The protesters who had braved three months of brutal winter were making demands that went against everything Putin stands for.
They wanted their country to turn toward Europe, not just to sign a partnership agreement with the European Union, but to make reforms that would unravel the system that fed on corruption.
Putin had fought the E.U. agreement by a variety of means. Last summer, his government imposed trade restrictions on Ukrainian imports, warning the government that Ukraine risked “suicide” if it dared to drift away from Moscow’s orbit.
Russia and Ukraine have close links going back centuries. The loss of Ukraine was one of the most painful losses for Moscow when the USSR collapsed in 1991. Putin has been heard saying Ukraine is not a state, calling it “Little Russia.”
For now, Ukraine’s pro-Europe activists have won the upper hand.
The Moscow-allied former President Yanukovich is out of the picture. New elections are scheduled. But Moscow has many cards up its sleeve, including diplomatic, economic and military ones.
The Olympics shined a flattering light on Putin’s Russia, but they stayed his hand. He had to smile for the cameras during the closing ceremonies, even as Ukraine seemed to slip through his fingers.
The Olympics are over, but Russia hasn’t put on its final performance.