Why Putin Cares So Much About Sochi

The Sochi Olympics are to Putin what Saint Petersburg was to Peter The Great. Freeing rivals, such as Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot, are one more step toward sealing his place in history.

Vladimir Putin at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort
Vladimir Putin at the Krasnaya Polyana ski resort
Marie Jégo

SOCHI — On Moscow’s Manege Square, located just minutes away from President Vladimir Putin’s office at the Kremlin, a giant digital clock counts down the days, hours, minutes until the beginning of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. The biggest international event organized by Russia since the fall of the USSR in 1991 will begin on Feb. 7, 2014.

Sochi, the old seaside resort of Russia’s nobility, is unrecognizable as it prepares to stand as the symbol of the country’s renewal, willing to show off its muscles and its newfound splendor. Large spaces are still under construction in this town of 400,000 inhabitants, located on a 145-kilometer-wide strip of land between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains that features little infrastructure.

About 8,000 Russians were recently recruited to replace the foreign workers who were expelled by immigration services. Now time is running out. The snowflake-shaped stadium that is supposed to host the opening ceremony is not yet finished, and several hotels still need to be constructed. Also, because Sochi is situated in a sub-tropical area, some fear there won’t be any snow. More than 300,000 cubic meters of powdered snow have had to be stored to prepare for that eventuality.

The bill for this grand Olympic production is breathtakingly high. Despite initial cost estimates hovering between $7 billion and $16 billion, more than $51.5 billion has already been spent, including $32 billion by the state. By comparison, the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 cost $3.6 billion and the London summer games $15.58 billion.

In early November, three billionaire investors — Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Potanin and Viktor Vekselberg — warned that they would be unable to pay back Russia’s Development Bank VEB for loans issued to construct sports facilities, hotel complexes and an airport. According to financial newspaper Vedomosti, these three investors received $7.2 billion in loans from the VEB.

The celebrations haven’t even started yet and the oligarchs are already worrying over the profitability of their investments. A significant number of these projects are loss-making, they say, because of extra demands such as accessibility for the disabled and a higher number of hotel rooms than planned.

Putin’s Games

Nothing is too beautiful for Sochi. That’s why the government promised these billionaires “additional measures” (tax rebates, lower interest, public properties as guaranties). After all, these are Putin’s Games. Didn’t he indeed get personally involved in the project by traveling to Guatemala in 2007 to advocate the city’s candidacy? He’s convinced that the choice of the International Olympic Committee is a recognition of his success.

Krasnaya Polyana ski resort — Photo: GNUFDL

“I can tell you with certainty that if we hadn’t restored territorial integrity, if we hadn’t put an end to the turmoil in the Caucasus, if we hadn’t fixed the economy and the social issues, there wouldn’t be any Olympics,” Putin explained in 2007.

A year later, when Russia was at war with Georgia, the country reinforced its positions in the region, installing military bases in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Soon after, Russia unilaterally recognized the “independence” of these two territories. And yet, when you get closer to the barbwires set up by Russian soldiers as a demarcation between Ossetia and Georgia, you receive the following text message on your cellphone: “You have entered the Russian Federation.”

It is with the Caucasus that Vladimir Putin conquered Russia, using the second Chechen War as a springboard to his election as president in March 2000. He’s now counting on the Sochi games to establish his legacy. In many respects, Sochi is to Putin what Saint Petersburg was to Peter The Great, an upgrade in status from the “window to Europe” to the picture window to the world.

The news Thursday that Putin would release from prison some of his best-known nemeses, including former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the music protest group Pussy Riot, was widely seen as an attempt to remove any obstacles from the Games in Sochi becoming his crowning achievement.

But such maneuvers aside, the Caucasus is far from being at peace. To the East, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, the Republic of Dagestan is infected by civil war. Kabardino-Balkaria and the region around Stavropol are riddled with Islamist groups. In Abkhazia, where all sorts of trafficking takes place, Dmitri Vichernev, the man in charge of the land register, was shot dead on Sept. 9. On Oct. 21, in Volgograd, a kamikaze from Dagestan blew himself up on a bus, killing six people.

That’s why Sochi will be turned into a vast experiment for the SORM system, which was activated by Russian intelligence services to intercept communications of visitors and their online data. Security measures will be drastic, with U.S. and British services having already pledged to cooperate. The border with Abkhazia will be closed, and control checkpoints have already been installed on the roads. Road traffic in the city will be limited, as will be sailing on the Black Sea.

The president also decided to ban any demonstrations unrelated to the Olympics. Finally, almost 40,000 police officers and soldiers will be on red alert. In the words of blogger Alexander Valov, it’s enough to turn Sochi into an “Olympic internment camp.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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