Diplomatic protocol is fuzzy on the issue of the Winter Olympics. Although they are not considered a must-attend event for world leaders — unlike the Summer Games — they do present an opportunity for the host country’s leader and his or her guests to mend any fraying relations. But when the Games went to Russia this month, the West’s most prominent statesmen decided to skip them. That was a mistake.
Russian President Vladimir Putin may seem to many like an unbending autocrat on the rise, but in fact Putin has never in his career shown himself to be more susceptible to Western influence than he has during the run-up to the Winter Games in Sochi. As the Games approached, Putin granted many of the West’s most pressing demands. He freed nearly all Russia’s most prominent political prisoners — environmental activists, feminist performance artists, oligarchs turned democrats and street protesters — whose release Western diplomats had long tried to secure.
That still left the U.S. and Europe criticizing Russia’s discriminatory law against homosexual “propaganda” directed at minors. But Putin eased up on that too. Two weeks before the start of Sochi 2014, his political party proposed amending that law to remove any reference to homosexuals.
Whether or not Putin’s allies in Russia’s parliament will vote through these amendments when the Games are over will partly depend on how much diplomatic credit Putin feels he has earned with the West for hosting Sochi and for his acts of conciliation. So far, he has received almost none.
The most notable exception to the West’s informal boycott of the Sochi Games was the presence at the opening ceremony of Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Even after the most turbulent year of Dutch-Russian relations in living memory — one that included Dutch police manhandling and arresting a Russian diplomat in the Hague, and homophobic thugs beating up a Dutch diplomat in his Moscow apartment — Rutte decided to accept Putin’s invitation. He got a grand reception: a one-on-one meeting with Putin that gave him the opportunity to voice Dutch concerns over human rights in Russia.
It’s impossible to say whether Rutte helped advance the cause of liberal democratic values in Russia with his gambit, but imagine if a few more of Rutte’s powerful E.U. friends had come along. The photo op would have let Putin feel like he is part of the European family at the very moment he craves its acceptance the most. Instead, he has been treated as an outcast.
As Russian history shows, an isolated Czar can be a cruel one, especially to his own people. But the blowback from shunning Putin in Sochi will likely be felt much farther afield. In the ongoing talks over the Syrian civil war, the Iranian nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Ukrainian revolution, Russia is a vital power broker. The next time Putin meets with his European peers to discuss these issues, he will no doubt remember how they declined his hospitality in Sochi.
While they still have the chance, Western leaders would be well advised to use the diplomatic safety switch built into every Olympic Games: the closing ceremony. On Feb. 23, Putin will again sit in his guarded box in Fisht Olympic Stadium, reflecting on all the sweat and treasure he poured into these Games. The question of who his friends are will likely cross his mind as he looks out over the statesmen in attendance. If the opening ceremony was any indication, you can bet that China will send a senior delegation, as will North Korea and the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Kazakhstan. Putin will be left to conclude that these are his only allies, while the West, even after all his good-faith gestures, has turned its back on him again.
Deputy Secretary of State William Burns is slated to lead the American delegation to the closing ceremony. It’s not too late for President Obama to seize an opportunity by sending someone more senior Putin could feel proud about hosting and whom he could do business with — Vice President Joe Biden, say, or Secretary of State John Kerry. The presence of either would go a long way toward ending a very rough period in U.S.-Russia relations. They may never again have a chance to meet with a Putin quite so open and vulnerable as he is now.
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