Dispatch

Putin Uses Olympic Ban to Rally Support for His Presidential Bid

The IOC’s unprecedented ban on Russia for sports doping feeds his narrative of a nation under siege.

Russian President Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia.  (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin has emerged once again in the guise of Russia’s true defender, announcing this week that he will seek re-election as president next year. His long-expected announcement came just a day after Russia was barred from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

As political tactics, the timing of his confirmation that he will run could not have been better. For months, there has been nonstop speculation over when, not if, Putin would declare his candidacy for the March presidential election. He is widely expected to win his fourth term, extending his 18-year grip on the country by another six years. Already the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin, Putin will be 71 at the end of the next term.

Standing on the factory floor of Russian carmaker GAZ in the city of Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday, Putin gave a rousing speech bursting with patriotism and peppered with references to Moscow’s triumphs in World War II. State television networks broadcast the event live, which included a worker coming onto the stage and asking the president for a gift. Putin smiled and then said he would run for president, to rapturous applause.

Putin worked in a veiled reference to Tuesday night’s unprecedented decision by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to ban Russia from the upcoming Pyeongchang Games over state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Moscow’s subsequent cover-up. Putin told the GAZ employees, “Russia will only go forward, only in this direction, and no one will ever stop us.”

The IOC decision culminated months of simmering tensions between Moscow and the West. Earlier this week, nine media outlets including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe were labeled as “foreign agents” by Russia’s Justice Ministry, which came in reaction to U.S. authorities’ labeling the Kremlin-funded English-language channel RT as a foreign agent. Russia’s lower house of parliament, the Duma, was swift to ban access for some of the targeted media, which are U.S. government-funded.

The Olympic ban also comes as the Russia scandal in the White House heats up, with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleading guilty last week to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials during the transition period after the 2016 U.S. election.

The IOC judgment, the harshest ever to be doled out to a country for doping, caps what Russian officials call proof of rampant Russophobia in the West, with relations between Moscow and Washington their chilliest since Cold War days. Putin said the IOC decision was “entirely orchestrated and politically motivated.”

The IOC decision “will fall into the narrative of ‘Russia as a besieged fortress’ and ‘the whole world is against us,’” said Alex Kokcharov, a country risk analyst at IHS Markit, a global data and information provider.

However, in a more conciliatory tone, Putin also said he was leaving the decision over whether or not to compete in the 2018 Winter Games to individual athletes; under the IOC decision, “clean” Russian athletes who have not failed doping tests will be allowed to participate under the Olympic flag and anthem. He also said, in contrast to previous Russian government statements, that there would be no Russian boycott of the games. Russian hockey star Alex Ovechkin chimed in, saying he hoped Russian athletes would participate in the games, even if under the Olympic flag.

The olive-branch comments on the Olympics suggest Putin is seeking to bolster support for his re-election campaign. Despite boasting nationwide popularity of 80 percent or more — and benefiting from a stifled opposition, with the main opposition candidate barred from running — it is proving harder than thought to keep the same man and party in power for almost two decades.

A survey released this week by independent pollster Levada found that 40 percent of Russians have no interest in voting in the upcoming presidential election — almost double of what it was a decade ago. In October, two women, including prominent TV personality and opposition member, the 36-year-old Ksenia Sobchak, declared their intention to run.

Some members of the opposition say Sobchak, the first woman to run for Russian president in 14 years, is providing a much-needed spark for a lackluster election campaign. She and Putin will face off against perennial candidates tolerated by the Kremlin as legitimate dissent, including the 73-year-old leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, and the 71-year-old nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

But with the recent IOC decision, Putin can position himself as “the defender of Russian national interest. It’s textbook use of a ‘foreign enemy,’ whether real or perceived, to mobilize support domestically,” Kokcharov of IHS Markit told Foreign Policy. That recalls Putin’s behavior during and after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula almost four years ago. The election is scheduled for March 18, the day Russia has officially declared as Crimea’s “reunification” with Russia.

More than a dozen countries have been banned from the Olympics since the early 1920s. Germany and Japan were not invited to the first postwar games in London in 1948, and South Africa faced years of Olympic bans because of its policy of apartheid. Cheating, however, is a new offense.

Russia, and the Soviet Union before it, had never been banned, and becoming a pariah will be a tough pill to swallow for Moscow. For a sporting powerhouse like Russia, the ban brings back sore memories of the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. The Soviet Union retaliated by leading a boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Even some of Putin’s harshest critics argue that there should be no boycott of the games and Russia’s athletes. “[B]oycott Putin. No photo-ops with the dictator, [don’t give] him the gloried Berlin 1936 moment he wants,” wrote the chess champion-turned-Putin critic Garry Kasparov after the IOC decision.

Before the IOC’s judgment, Russia had approached the potential ban with humor. Last week, the Russian Olympic Committee showed off designs from its new clothing collection, with slogans on sweatshirts saying “I don’t do doping, I am for sport!” and “Russians did it!”

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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