The Sochi Winter Olympics, which begin next week, will forever be known as Putin’s Games. However they eventually pan out, Russia’s President has staked a good deal of political capital on their success — not to mention plenty of actual capital, too — and his legacy will ultimately be coloured by that of the project he has spearheaded from the get-go. At more than $50 billion, Putin’s Games can claim to be the most expensive in history, costing five times more than original estimates, $10 billion more than Beijing, and more than all previous Winter Olympics combined. They have already won gold by a significant margin in terms of alleged corruption as well. Whether or not they become the most violent — and terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December have raised concerns that they might — remains an open question.

One person interested in the answer is Dr Mark Galeotti (@MarkGaleotti), clinical professor of global affairs at New York University and an expert in Russian security affairs and transnational organised crime. Not that he expects to see the sort of attack within Sochi that many have expressed concern about.

“Making predictions is always giving a hostage to fortune,” Galeotti told Crikey, “but I think an actual attack inside the security cordon is unlikely. The massive security operation is frankly as good as the Russians reasonably could mount, considering the limitations on protecting any such public event. It’s not quite how Western powers would try to secure an event, to be sure, but that shouldn’t blind us to the measures that have been taken.

“I think the real threat will be to other Russian cities,” he said. “The insurgents need to launch attacks to keep up their propaganda initiative, but Sochi may be too hard a target. Instead, they’re likely to look at other cities in the country’s south, close enough to benefit from the international media spotlight, but less well-protected, especially as some of those cities’ police have been sent to guard the Games.”


Galeotti tweet


The problem for Putin is that the narrative he hoped might surround the event — which he has always seen as “an opportunity to show the world just how efficient, solvent and welcoming the new Russia could be under his wise leadership”, as Galeotti puts it — keeps being hijacked by competing ones. In the same way that Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, has commandeered the narrative of the Games with his remarkable online compendium of alleged corruption, so too have the North Caucasus’ insurgents wrested from presidential control the terms in which the event will be experienced and remembered. “Simply by shaping the debate, by making the Sochi story one about terrorism, the rebels are actually winning the political campaign at the moment,” Galeotti said. 

“But the actual threats to Sochi are, as much as anything else, economic, environmental (the ecological damage has been appalling), political and reputational. And the terrible quality of much construction there means that I wouldn’t be that surprised if something collapsed, flooded or otherwise embarrassed the government in the next month.”

For all Sochi’s shortcomings, it also worth remembering that the hubris and cronyism surrounding the event merely represent “an especially egregious case” of a tendency common not only among Olympic host cities, but among host cities for any number of such large-scale events. Vladimir Putin may be “desperate for his grandstanding moment”, as Galeotti puts it, but he is hardly the first national leader of whom this has been true.

“In a sane world, no national government should bid for any of these sporting mega-events,” Galeotti said. “Much is made of their value to tourism, the chance to increase a country’s global profile, the legacy benefits. But when do these ever genuinely benefit the host country, or at least host population? They are vanity projects for national leaderships and cash cows for certain industries.”

Galeotti has written 11 books (two of which are forthcoming) and edited several more. (Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces since 1991 came out last year and was a surprise hit for Osprey Publishing, which will follow it up with Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009 in December.) But he hardly limits himself to the ivory tower or the world of academic publishing. In addition to writing for op-eds for multiple newspapers, appearing on cable news shows and regularly co-hosting Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s excellent Power Vertical podcast with Brian Whitmore, he is an active participant in the thriving online community of Anglo-American Russia-watchers, professional and amateur alike, whose Twitter feeds and blogs constitute one of the most passionate and, at times, venomous conversations on the internet. (Galeotti prefers the term “Russia-watcher” to more pejorative terms like “Russophile” and “Russophobe”, which he rejects as “sterile, unhelpful and often applied in a laughably crass way — and I say this as someone who has been described as both a ‘pathological Russophobe’ and a ‘Kremlin stooge'”.) Like Galeotti’s blog, In Moscow’s Shadows, his Twitter feed is a must-read for anyone interested, not only in the Sochi’s “ring of steel”, but also in Russian security issues more generally.

“On the one hand, Twitter’s my curated news service,” he said. “Most things that happen in the world that match my interests? Odds are that someone I follow will tweet it. Secondly, it’s a place for conversation.

“The problem, needless to say, is that often there is little meeting of minds, and instead a reliance on assertion, passion and downright character assassination. That’s not unique to discussion about Russia, of course, but it is a country which tends to arouse particular passions, for reasons historical and political.

“Twitter’s also a dangerous potential time-sink and it’s important to realise that not all human life is there.”

Which is one of the reasons he tends to keep the particulars of his own life away from it.

“My Twitter feed is like a dot-to-dot image of who I am and what interests me,” Galeotti said, “but only insofar as my professional interests are concerned. I’ve never been into the blended personal/public exposure of the trivia of my life.

“I’m generally not going to be tweeting what I had for breakfast alongside my views on violence in Ukraine or the latest gangster hit.”

Mark Galeotti’s #FF: 

  • The Calvert Journal (@calvertjournal): “An eclectic guide to Russian culture that helps show how dynamic and exciting it can be.”
  • The Interpreter (@Interpreter_Mag): “A great sources of analysis on Russia and, especially, translations of Russian press articles that deserve a wider audience.”
  • OCCRP (@OCCRP), which “provides often-amazing and ground-breaking research into organised crime’s impact, conducted by brave, brilliant journalists.”
  • RuNet Echo (@runetecho): “An essential guide to what’s going on in the Russian infosphere.”
  • Russian History Blog (@RussHistBlog): “A great collection of history-oriented bloggers.”

On Putin’s determination to host the Winter Olympics … 

When Putin launched his bid to host the Sochi Winter Olympics, everything seemed to be going his way. The economy was strong, with money to spare for such a venture. The Chechen resistance was pretty much smashed, and the other North Caucasus jamaats were not yet as strong or as active as now. Politically, he was unassailable. So Sochi 2014 was going to be the opportunity to show the world just how far the country had come.

Ah, hubris, what ambushes you lead us to, with a cheery twinkle in your eye!

The world fell into the Great Recession, with Russia’s hydrocarbon economy still performing pretty sluggishly now. The fires of the North Caucasus burned ever higher. And Putin, insulated behind an increasingly thick wall of yes-men, failed to realise just how badly his public-private machine could work, especially when allowed such free rein to embezzle. And Putin, being Putin, hopes to succeed by bulling through, with the odd sacrificial sacking here and televised dressing-down of a subordinate there.

It may still work, if the Games go off smoothly, but the odds are not great. Already the terrorism issue is overshadowing much, the preparations are behind schedule and often terribly shoddy, and the scope for further upsets considerable. The best I think Putin can hope for politically is to break even.

Overall, I can see why he made the decisions he did back then, but even so there were worrying indicators of potential trouble ahead to be seen. He chose to ignore them. Ultimately, he made the call and chose to spend $50 billion on Sochi instead of roads and pensions. 

On Chechnya, Doku Umarov and the legacy of Russia’s wars in the republic … 

Mark Galeotti tweetMark Galeotti tweet

[In the middle of January, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that Doku Umarov, a Chechen Islamist militant and the self-proclaimed Emir of the Caucasus Emirate, had been killed. I asked Galeotti if he believed the reports.]

We’ve been here before. Umarov’s greatest (and perhaps only) talent is Not Being Killed, so it’s a tough call. I think that this time he probably is dead or, as he has before, lying low somewhere as he recovers from a serious injury. But I don’t think it will make a great difference to the situation on the ground: even a more able and charismatic “emir” — and that’s not exactly the highest bar to vault — would be unlikely to be able to bring great cohesion to the diffuse insurgent forces of the North Caucasus. And even if one did, that might actually make them more vulnerable to the Russians.

The Chechen wars did not exactly spawn the insurgencies in the rest of the North Caucasus, but it certainly helped galvanise them and add the distinct jihadist discourse to what were essentially struggles against alien and corrupt misrule. And Ramzan Kadyrov’s regime is in many ways the very epitome of the worst characteristics of Putinism, shorn of any moral, legal, cultural or political constraints, so it is also a useful benchmark and cautionary tale.

To be honest, it’s actually very difficult to untangle Chechnya, Putin, the resurgence of Russian militarism and nationalism, xenophobia on the streets and an antagonistic relationship with civil society at home and human rights institutions abroad. I could no more say that Chechnya caused these other problems as that it is just a symptom of them. It’s both, and also a handy lens through which to look at the differences between Yeltsin’s wasteful and rudderless “time of troubles” and Putin’s often clumsy and brutal but in some ways necessary “gathering of the Russian lands” after that decade of self-indulgence and drift.

I can’t claim any deep on-the-ground knowledge of the North Caucasus. I mostly work from secondary or out-of-area sources. I do this for all kinds of reasons, including my general lack of enthusiasm for being kidnapped, shot or arrested. But also because I don’t present to be a North Caucasus culture specialist. Indeed, for my work on Chechen gangsters I am far more interested in what they are doing in Moscow or, indeed, Munich.

It may be naive of me, but I don’t believe any area is doomed to eternal misery, even if the North Caucasus tests that optimism to the fullest. Ultimately, though, the problems of the region are products primarily of poverty and imperialism, and both of these are just as serious at the moment as they were 50 or 100 years ago, alas. Unless and until they are addressed, then it’s hard to see the region moving forward. But just Europe has moved surprisingly quickly from being a cockpit of conflict and xenophobia into a strikingly stable and unified region, and just as in fifty years the spites and feuds of the Balkans will probably be history, so too is there definite hope for the North Caucasus. Even anvils rust and break over time. 

On the Ukrainian protests … 

What we’re seeing in Kiev is qualitatively different to the anti-Putin protests of 2011-12 and reflects, I believe, the equally qualitatively different threat the state realises it is facing. This is a malign combination of panic and irresolution: less panic would mean a softer hand, as in Moscow; more resolution might mean a sustained and methodical campaign of violence, as in Tiananmen Square. In Ukraine, political and economic protest combine with nationalism in a way we don’t see in Russia. And a tradition of having genuinely contested elections and changes of government, as well as the Orange Revolution, has been a powerful force in the political imaginary: people can believe they might be able to force change onto the government in a way fewer can in Russia.

This is, after all, one of the two key challenges for the Russian opposition: make people believe that they can actually achieve something. (The other is building a real political machine: you can’t rely purely on Twitter, vKontakte and the hipsterati of Moscow; ultimately you need people willing to knock on doors and hand out leaflets in Khabarovsk and Krasnodar.)

On corruption as a national security threat … 

Corruption is a practical security issue in that it drains budgets of money that is meant to be spent on security. But far more serious is the way in which it drains professionalism and legitimacy. Corruption is the magic universal key that can unlock any border, open any security seal. When corruption is endemic, every state secret is potentially available for auction, every guardian is for hire, every law and regulation is just the start of a negotiation. And, just as importantly, so long as people know this, why should they trust the laws and their makers and enforcers? The lives of ordinary Russians may seem — and are — worlds apart from those magnates and officials pocketing huge sums from Sochi, but as above, so below: when people know that this is how the bosses behave, then of course they will believe they have the same license to thieve.

On the need to listen to more Russian voices …  

Putin is not an alien invader. He came into power because figures within the elite, from Yeltsin down, needed someone like him, and he stays there not just because the elite find him useful but also because enough of the population regard him as the right man for the job. Russians are no more gullible than anyone else. To this end, rather than talking just about the machinations of elite politics, however important they are, or the aspirations of reformers, however laudable they may be, but to consider more clearly what Russians of different strata are looking for in their leadership. Without getting mired in the Orientalism of the historical/political culture debate (that so often defaults to “the Russian is comfortable with the firm hand of the state and become nervous and giddy when granted excessive freedom”), let’s try and listen to Russian voices more.