Punishing Putin - He'd Better Get Used to It

Kremlin spokesmen have described Russia’s banning from the 2018 Winter Olympics as a “humiliation”. For once, they are telling the truth. They should try to get used to the pressure because the underlying fragility of President Putin’s regime could soon be exposed.

The Olympic ban is the punishment for Russia’s massive state-sponsored doping programme at the last Winter games, which it hosted in Sochi. A World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) investigation uncovered the scandal. It proved that Russia’s athletes were given performance-enhancing drugs in accordance with a strategy directed by government ministers. The FSB (Russia’s state security service and the successor to the KGB) ensured the programme initially evaded detection by surreptitiously switching the doped athletes’ urine samples for clean ones.

Hosting the Winter Olympics was intended as a huge prestige project for Putin. $50 billion was spent on it – over three times as much as the UK spent on the (far larger) 2012 Summer Olympics in London. As so often with Putin, the short-term tactical gain has ended up becoming a long-term strategic blunder. Much of the inflated budget was diverted into the pockets of Putin’s cronies, highlighting the grotesque corruption of his rule. Now, the doping scandal has exposed their willingness to risk the health of hundreds of healthy, young athletes for the sake of Putin’s personal glorification.

There are signs that Putin is increasingly anxious about the second of the two sporting prestige projects he dubiously secured from the international sports federations. The 2018 FIFA football World Cup in Russia is less likely to be blighted by another state-sponsored doping scandal. Football, with its many variables, is harder to impact than most Olympic sports with illegal drugs. And the performance-enhancing substances required to boost the prospects of a Russian national team ranked 65th in the world have probably not been invented yet.

The World Cup should, of course, have been removed from a country that is carrying out an illegal military occupation of a fellow FIFA member state, Ukraine. But now that such action seems unlikely to be taken, the stadiums the tournament takes place in will again point to the chronic high-level corruption of Putin’s Mafia state.

Having the eyes of the world upon Russia provides an excellent opportunity for campaigners to expose its human rights abuses and lack of freedom. It also offers a chance to encourage the Russian people to wonder why their wealthy rulers are still spending substantial sums on building unnecessary sports stadiums. This question is particularly acute after several years of economic struggle caused by lower oil prices, maladministration and international sanctions.

Events outside Putin’s control promise to be even more significant

By the time the World Cup takes place next summer, political events in the intervening months are likely to make the close attention it brings even more uncomfortable for Putin.

A presidential election will take place on 18th March 2018. The electoral process is already heavily rigged to guarantee a big Putin “win”. But he faces the difficult decision of whether to allow genuine opposition candidates, notably Alexei Navalny, to run. Doing so will give the skilled communicator Navalny a platform to draw further public attention to the Putin government’s theft from ordinary Russians. Whilst banning him – the likelier option - will only confirm the illegitimacy of the election.

Events outside Putin’s control promise to be even more significant. The pace of the Mueller Inquiry into President Trump’s collusion with Russia suggests that further damning revelations will be forthcoming in early 2018. Pressure for tougher sanctions against individuals close to Putin is already growing in the US, despite Trump’s efforts to stall their imposition.

Such steps hit at the very foundations of Putin’s rule. Much like a Mafia Godfather, his personal power rests on his role as the ultimate arbiter in squabbles between the gangsters and his ability to share out the spoils satisfactorily. If Putin’s actions, such as invading Ukraine and interfering in the US election, bring further “heat” on the billionaire crooks and oligarchs in his circle, then this changes their calculations.

They have been happy to support and pay tribute to Putin for as long as they can milk the Russian economy and stash the proceeds in the West (mostly), often along with their families. If personally-targeted financial sanctions and travel bans make it impossible for them to access these assets and the places they like to keep them, then they will start to question the value of keeping Putin in power.

Like most bullies, Putin and his cronies often strike out aggressively first but then struggle to cope when pressure is thrown back on them. 2018 could be the year when we find out just how much it will make them crumble.

More about the author

About the author

Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull's King George Dock before globetrotting for two decades as an unlikely British envoy. His "instructive and funny" (Alan Johnson MP) book about his experiences, "The Accidental Diplomat", is out now.

He is also the Chief Foreign Correspondent for the Sabotage Times and contributes to publications such as The Telegraph, Forty-20 and When Saturday Comes.

All that travel has failed to shift Paul's inherited old Labour instincts.

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