Debate Magazine

Putin’s Propaganda Olympics and the Ukraine Crisis

Posted on the 13 March 2014 by Shahalexander

The Sochi Olympics and Paralympics are politically questionable events. This is the Olympic of Putin, by Putin, and for Putin. It is not just a matter of gay rights. Kremlin’s priority in national pride and dignity sacrifices the well being of citizens living around the venue. While major Western leaders abstained from attending the opening ceremony to express their concerns with human rights oppression in Russia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stood out in the Western alliance to have a bilateral talk with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in view of geopolitical rivalries with China, the conclusion of the peace treaty, and natural resource development in East Siberia. I would like to explore political implications of this Olympics and Paralympics, in consideration of G8 this June and the unrest in Ukraine since November last year. And then, I would discuss whether Japan will fall into another Hatoyama error by its independent action to Russia in the alliance of Western democracies. Whatever the reason is, this is contrary to Abe’s new National Security Strategy that stresses the alliance of common democratic values.
The Sochi Olympics had two objectives. First, it was intended to demonstrate Russian power on the global stage, and second, to impose political and military pressure on neighboring areas Caucasus and Ukraine by concentrating security forces in the Black Sea area. This Olympics is far from Baron Coubertin’s ideal to enhance friendship through sports. Let me tell stark between the Olympics of freedom in London 2012 and those of state-led authoritarianism in Beijing and Sochi. Like Beijing 2008, Sochi 2014 is an event to demonstrate the power of autocracy, hardly giving consideration to the well being of domestic citizens. For the sake of Olympic site construction, it is well known that numerous people living there were displaced in both games. Here I would like to show an by Human Rights Watch below.

According to the video reported from a mountain village Akhshtyr between skating sites in Sochi and skiing sites in Krasnaya Polyana, the highway and the railroad to connect both venues have divided the life sphere of the villagers along the road. They are forced to go long ways around to the opposite side of the highway. Road construction has dried up wells for their daily life and caused a few kinds of environmental degradation there. Jane Buchanan, Associate Director of Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, comments that villagers are poorly compensated for such losses. Apparently, the well being of the narod is none of Putin’s interest, who is preoccupied with Russian power in the world.
Unlike Sochi and Beijing, London had hardly any problems with such displacement and marginalization of inhabitants. Most notably, state authority was out in front both in Sochi and Beijing, while not in London. This is typically illustrated in the fact that it was Mayor Boris Johnson who vehemently refuted Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s inappropriate comment about the London Games, neither Queen Elizabeth nor Prime Minister David Cameron. Unlike citizen-led Olympics in London, Sochi and Beijing were ridiculously obsessed with the great power syndrome. Comparing national power of these three counties from various aspects of hard power and soft power, assertive Russia and China are not necessarily advantageous over modest Britain. Both are far greater than Britain in the area and population. Also, Russia is the only nuclear archrival to the United States. However, neither Russia nor China has global power projection capability that Britain has, despite their rapid military build up these days. The gross economy of China may be so gigantic as to rival the United States, but its per capita income is far lower than those of G8 nations. Moreover, who buys Chinese and Russian brands over British and American? In soft power, Britain overwhelms both Russia and China. The Global Times, an English language newspaper run by the Chinese government, belittled Britain when Cameron visited China (“‘Britain is merely a country of old Europe with a few decent football teams': Chinese newspaper criticises UK during David Cameron visit” Independent; 3 December, 2013), but it is China that depend on British and American media fr their anti-Japanese campaign on wartime history and the Senkaku territorial clash. Obviously, autocracies need to use the Olympics for their propaganda, but a democracies do not.
I would like to argue that the problem of big spending Sochi Olympics is much deeper than gay and lesbian rights. Abe’s step out from Western protest to Russia was already problematic even before the Ukrainian crisis developed so critical as it is today. Regarding oddness of Sochi, I would like to mention hospitality to visitors. Tourists from overseas complain poorly furnished running water and toilets at their accommodations in Sochi on Twitter (“#BBCtrending: Does Russia think it has #SochiProblems?”; BBC News; 8 February, 2014). There is no doubt that construction workers at Sochi facilities hardly gave consideration to customers who use them, but merely thought of satisfying Putin who craved for building them so hastily. This is typical, command and control mindsets of the old Soviet Union, hardly any consideration to “omotenashi” or generosity to visitors. This was not the case with London. Seen from every respect, Sochi is too repressive to host the Olympic s and Paralympics.
The Ukraine crisis closely related to such a power oriented nature of Putin’s Olympics. It is Russia’s vital interest to keep its influence in former Soviet republics in view of geopolitical rivalries against the West. Meanwhile, Japan outreaches to Russia is quite noticeable. The unrest in Ukraine began in November, and Putin’s aggression was somewhat predictable. Apparently, Sochi is associated with so many political problems. It is regretful that Abe attended the opening ceremony to cheerlead Putin, while none of American and European leaders did not. Of course, it is somewhat understandable that Japan is moving closer to Russia. Since the Fukushima accident, Japan is in need of diversifying energy supply source, and exploring partnership with Russia for oil and gas in Eastern Siberia and the Arctic area (“Japan and Russia: Arctic Friends”; Diplomat; February 1, 2014). In terms of geo-strategy, Japan eyes on Russia to offset growing expansionism of China. Also, Abe thinks it necessary to placate Russia, in order to settle long disputed South Kuril territory issue since the end of World War II. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida barely urged self restraint of stakeholders on Ukraine, so as not to provoke Russia at the press conference on March 4 (“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Japan's Ukraine Dilemma”: Diplomat; March 8, 2014). Even anti-Abe Asahi Shimbun agrees to Abe’s stance of balancing Russia and the West.
However, is Putin so generous as to meet Japan’s security requirements, in return for hail and praise as Abe did in Sochi? Certainly, Russia needs Japanese money and export market for oil and gas, in order to boost the economy of underdeveloped Far East. But Putin’s primary strategic goal is defying Pax Americana, in order to claim Russia as a nuclear archrival to the United States and geopolitical great power in the world. Rather than a counterbalance, Russia founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with China to challenge the Western alliance. Actually, China implicitly says that the West is responsible for the turmoil as well as Russia, at the press conference by Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on March 2 (“China Backs Russia on Ukraine”; Diplomat; March 4, 2013). Remember that Russia had been the most frequent intruder to the Japanese airspace until surpassed by China in 2012 (“Japan’s Air Defense Scramble Doubled Last Year”; J-Cast News; April 18, 2013). In addition, I can hardly expect Putin is more bountiful than Dmitry Medvedev who visited Kunashiri as a president in 2010. Russia has invested to lifeline facilities in South Kuril, which implies Kremlin’s long term adherence to the disputed islands.

Rather than cheerleading a dictator, Abe should abide by his own principle stated in the NSS (National Security Strategy) that Japan defend liberal international order, its values, and the alliance of democracies. From this point, it is utterly ridiculous that Japan balance Russia and the West. Such policies failed in Iran to maintain Japanese business interests in the Iran-Japan Petrochemical Project and Azadegan oil field. Also, Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s dream of the East Asian Community to balance the United States and China was shattered miserably. It appears to me that Abe’s cheerleading to Putin is a kind of Hatoyamanization even before the Ukrainian crisis. Abe may have reached some agreements with Putin in Sochi (“Japan Russia Summit: Further Talk on Putin’s Visit to Japan”; Sankei Shimbun; February 8, 2014) , but they were made in a festive mood. Considering autocratic and power-oriented nature of the Putin regime as revealed in the Ukrainian crisis, Putin’s possible visit to Japan will simply cool down the US-Japanese alliance without improving the territorial issue and Far Eastern security environment (Abe’s dilemma between the United States and Russia”; 47 News; March 7, 2014). Based on NSS principle, Japan is in a position to save Crimean Tatars from humanitarian points as they face threats of pro-Russian militias. Putin’s aggression reminds them of tragic history of imposed deportation by Joseph Stalin (“Russian occupation opens old wounds for Ukraine's Crimean Tatars”; Sydney Morning Herald; March 11, 2014). Abe’s visit to Yasukuni caused unnecessary tension with the United States, and further tension must be avoided. Finally, international sports organizations like IOC must give more consideration to political aspects to select the host city. Sochi and Beijing have so many problems to hold Olympics and Paralympics. In the real world, sports and politics cannot be separated. Never cheerlead dictatorship. The problems of Sochi and Ukraine are deeply interconnected.


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