Have some sympathy for Vladimir V. Putin. The Winter Olympics, to be held in Sochi, a ski resort near the border with the ex-Georgian breakaway republic of Abkhazia and alarmingly close to still-roiling Chechnya and Dagestan, were supposed to represent a triumph of Putin’s restoration of Russian dignity.
He had taken the disorganised, demoralised ex-Superpower, whose once formidable government institutions had been picked apart by a group businessmen so mighty they were termed Oligarchs, whose troops were dying by the thousands in what seemed like a losing battle to keep territories that had been part of Russia-proper since the Romanovs ruled, and which, immediately before his first election in 2000, had been convulsed by extraordinary brutal bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow, and turned it into an institution effective in least the basic function of Russian statehood. Namely, that of extracting Siberia’s natural resource wealth and diverting it not just to the pockets of the ruling elite, but more crucially to engorge Moscow’s symbols and muscles, and present to the world the not entirely realistic prospect that Russia, the ‘R’ in Goldman Sachs’s famous acronym, was once more a rising power and a nation whose opinions, however politically incorrect, could command a decent respect from the men of Davos and Foggy Bottom.
Meanwhile, winning the right to host the Olympics and the 2018 World Cup showed that even as Russian gas revenues have fallen thanks to fracking in the US, Moscow had more going for it than energy diplomacy. It could wield soft power as well. The games are set to begin just weeks after what’s been a very successful 2013 draws to a close. Had Putin compiled his Facebook 2013 in Review it would doubtless have included Micheil Saakashvilli’s fall from power in Georgia; that his relationship status had changed to “Divorced”; and that he had finally got that op-ed published in the New York Times.
Alongside that he managed two significant diplomatic achievements: to protect his Syrian ally from an American assault that could easily have ended with Assad’s deposition, and, expensively, kept Ukraine out of an association agreement with the EU.
Moreover, the once-powerful oligarchs are now in exile, in line, or in the ground. If the Olympics appear to have been crucial to securing the release, or rather, the deportation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, they also allowed him to correct his foolish decision to make the minor and only vaguely talented Pussy Riot into international prisoners of conscience.
But now he seems to have been stuck with a confrontation with suicide terrorists from the Caucasus, who have obviously chosen to strike just at the time when attacks will gain maximum publicity. Worse, he cannot risk deploying the traditional Russian counter-terrorist methods while the world’s media attention is focused on his regime’s behaviour.
Expect the usual suspects to be rounded up, and a few more besides, the area to be flooded with police and favours to be called in. Stopping suicide bombing, is however almost impossible without good intelligence, and good intelligence needs the support of at least the minds (if not the hearts) of the people among whom the terrorists move.
They will be hoping to set off a confrontation, and to provoke Moscow into the kind of overreaction that has sparked off insurgencies from Algiers to Baghdad. A Third Chechen War would would drain Putin’s resources, and undermine his image as a strong leader and protector of the Russians on both of which his regime depends. It remains to see whether Mr Putin will keep his head, because a mistake now could mortally wound his regime.