In recent weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made headlines in harboring and eventually granting asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden, resisting U.S. overtures for a peace initiative in halting the Syrian civil war and passing anti-gay rights legislation in the buildup for next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
A few days ago, President Barack Obama cancelled an upcoming summit with Putin in Moscow. Meanwhile, after condemning the Russia government for its pre-Olympic anti-gay stand, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has just indicated its willingness to look favorably on gay Russian asylum seekers who claim to be the victims of persecution.
The deterioration of the Russia-U.S. relationship has led some observers to question whether we are entering a new era of Cold War politics. Some politicians, such has U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham, have also hinted about a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi.
Clearly, the relationship has not been as frosty since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but a new Cold War is not and should not be on the horizon. In the last decade, the U.S. and Russia have agreed on a number of key issues, including backing the war in Afghanistan in 2001, ratifying the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on nuclear weapons, and imposing important sanctions on Iran.Just recently, the Russian government claimed to have passed on vital information about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brothers involved in the Boston Marathon terrorist attack. Even while Obama was cancelling next month’s Moscow summit, Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia may no longer be a superpower nation, but we can expect it to act primarily in its own interests.
Today, Russia does not lead a bloc of countries adhering to the Communist ideology with the goal of extending influence and power across the planet. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia has struggled politically, socially and economically. Its era of grandeur has given way to less influence generally on world issues and a more marginal role in developing the post-Cold War world order. Putin has exploited this pride deficit by standing up to the U.S. president and, since his return to the Russian presidency, has acted in ways that have strongly irritated the U.S. political class.
This being said, the western powers have rightly resisted the call for a boycott of the Sochi Games. The last two boycotts of the Olympic Games (in 1980 and 1984) were abject failures.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) cannot involve itself in political disputes, but it has the moral authority and the mandate to condemn Putin and his cohorts for their anti-gay initiatives. Athletes themselves can also use the Sochi Games to express to Putin and the world their disavowal of his governance on this important subject. This would not be contrary to the Olympic spirit.
History is sadly full of examples of tyranny not being met with a strong stand on principles. Putin is out of step with the rest of the world. He can either continue on his path to greater isolation, or become a constructive partner in developing a more positive and mutually beneficial world order. In the meantime, the response is the right one: no to Putin’s anti-gay policies, and yes to the Olympic spirit and the upcoming Winter Games.