The Edmond Sun

February 24, 2014

Chicago Tribune: The Olympics can’t disguise Putin’s quest for dominion


Special to The Sun

CHICAGO — With the Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to rivet the world’s attention on the New and Improved Russia, a rising-again world power to be reckoned with, a country on the road to global glory.

And why not? Things have been going Putin’s way. His brinkmanship forestalled a U.S. strike on Russia’s man in Damascus, President Bashar Assad. National Security Agency leaker in chief Edward Snowden is safely ensconced in Moscow, thumbing his nose at Washington. And long-downtrodden Russia now hosts ... an Olympics!

The spectacle of Sochi’s ice dancers, skiers and snowboarders — the Free World gathered in peaceful competition — now competes for headlines with increasingly bloody, fiery protests in Ukraine that Putin helped ignite by interfering with Ukraine’s attempt to sign a trade and negotiation deal with the European Union.

The Olympic spotlight dimmed Sunday when the Games closed. And with that, no more distractions from the status quo ante: The corrosive reality of Vladimir Putin’s Russia will again take center stage.

Despite its oil and gas resources, Russia’s economy is wobbly, its growth rate last year an anemic 1.3 percent, down from 3.4 percent in 2012. Putin has failed to build a robust, free-market economy or anything close to a full-fledged democracy where dissent is tolerated if not somewhat encouraged. The Kremlin’s heavy-handed political, diplomatic and economic tactics spook many investors.

These days, Russians also are enduring the “most severe crackdown against human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says the pro-democracy organization Freedom House. Putin has harassed advocacy organizations under the pretense of shielding Russia from “foreign agents.” Many organizations have been subjected to “aggressive and intrusive” inspections, Human Rights Watch says.

Putin’s Iron Curtain has a zero-sum relationship with the West. If Russia reasserts dominance over parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the U.S. and its allies lose. If Ukrainian protesters force a rapprochement between their country and the EU, it is Putin who loses.

Ukraine is on the brink now. It could again become a loyal client state of Russia, firmly under Putin’s iron thumb. Or ... it could move closer to the West, spoiling Putin’s dream of greater regional and world influence.

That’s a competition the U.S. and its European allies must win.