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International sporting events are never just about sport, there is always a political subtext. The host country places itself in the international limelight, and the rest of the world calibrates its responses to whatever that light may show. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, were in effect the coming out party for the New China. The Western press for the most part reported in awe, and Western leaders paid appropriate deference by turning out en masse for the opening ceremony.

Apocalypse in Kiev: Demonstrators resist attempts by President Yanukovych to end their three-month protest against his pro-Russian policies (credit: AFP/Getty Images) 

The Winter Olympics at Sochi were similarly intended as a celebration of revived post-Soviet Russia. But the international response was very different. An extraordinarily high proportion of Western press coverage was devoted not to the sports, but to terrorism, corruption and, in particular, gay rights. Not coincidentally, no key Western leader attended. Given that China is indisputably a more repressive and backward place than Russia it is hard to see any consistent argument of principle for this. Putin will (accurately) have noted the unwillingness of Western leaders to stand up to a strident domestic lobby in the interests of good relations with Russia. While, ironically, the rumpus has undoubtably benefited him domestically, it has been another Western slap in his country's face.

The current sour state of relations between Russia and the West contrasts strikingly with high hopes on both sides when Communism fell. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke of a "common European home", and Boris Yeltsin pressed for Russian membership of Nato and economic support for the transition to a market economy. Meanwhile President Bush was enthusing about a "new world order" and Western companies were queuing up to enter what looked like a huge new market and investment opportunity.

It is only too easy for each side to blame the other for the subsequent downward slide. The Russians will point to the inadequate financial support and insanely neoliberal economic advice which produced economic chaos and collapse. They will point to the redrawing of the Nato security periphery to keep Russia out while (contrary to promises they say they received) taking in "hostile" countries such as Poland and the Baltic Republics. And they will point to a consistent history of Western support for anti-Russian forces wherever they arise-Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine. If the West is so anti-Russian what choice does Russia have but to protect itself? From the Western side, the growing authoritarianism of the Russian state and the clumsy brutality with which it pursues its objectives-from the suppression of the insurrection in Chechnya, through gas outages and cyber attacks, to the murder of political opponents and support for unpleasant regimes abroad-make Russia a very difficult country for decent democratic politicians to be seen out with-as the empty chairs at Sochi made clear.

Today's antipathy has a 20-year history. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Russia not only ceased to be a superpower but for a decade ceased to count at all internationally. This was the "unipolar moment" when the US bestrode the world like a colossus and the Western foreign policy agenda-with large doses of humanitarian intervention and promotion of democracy and human rights-dominated the field. The West in effect simply ignored Russia on a whole series of issues: through the expansion of Nato (prompted much more by President Clinton's interest in Polish votes in Chicago than any consideration of the likely effect on Russia), the Bosnia and Kosovo wars, the US abrogation of the ABM Treaty, right up to the insouciant US encouragement for Georgia which was a large component of that country's mad military adventure against Russia in 2008. I served in the British Embassy in Washington from 2001 to 2004-the period of 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq-and don't recall concern about Russian views ever seriously figuring in administration calculations at that time.
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March 24th, 2014
3:03 PM
A minor point is that not only did "The West" not send any high-level politicians to Sotschi, the USA provoked Russia by sending an openly gay female tennis player. (As tennis is not a Winter Olympics sport this can only be construed as provocation). The following point is good. > Russia has become a country to profile themselves against rather than try seriously to work with. There seem to be only two Western countries that want to keep channels open. One is Germany with both Merkel and her foreign minister more interested in dialog than making political points (although she manages to condemn the invasion at the same time!) and the other is Finland whose president (Sauli Niinistö not to be confused with the Environment Minister Villi Niinistö)[Note that traditionally the president of Finland has a major foreign relations role] said today publicly that he would continue person to person contacts with Vladimir Putin.

hegels advocateAnonymous
February 28th, 2014
7:02 PM
I think Zizek might call this article "tartling" about (see his `What is an authentic political event?` in the New Statesman) When does the new economic model of the first civilised 21st century country Uruguay get taken seriously ? Zizek is silent on this too. As are Pussy Riot and Femen artists.

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