Putin’s $51 billion gamble to re-make Russians’ self-image achieves its initial, limited goals. Putin wanted Sochi to sell Russians they’re active participants in the 21st century’s pop culture meme bubble, not just observers. Sochi’s distraction and legitimization will buy crucial time for his regime.
Giving The Russian People A Chance To Escape Today
It’s beyond just Putin individually. His restive elites need him to peddle illusions of Russian global emergence. All have a stake in prolonging the faltering system’s inertia. Russia’s economic growth, once over 8% in the mid 2000s, may not break 1% in 2014. Infighting among self-dealing elites over extractive and infrastructure resources grows more public. Putin’s no longer the axiomatic arbiter. Russia fails to embrace economic innovation to replace dead dinosaurs/gas/oil in the ground. Russia’s future is bleak.
Worse, Putin’s bag of tricks is almost empty. He’s tapped Russia’s Reserve Fund and also guaranteed Sochi expenses. His extravagant but ineffectual re-armament plan forced his earlier Finance Minister, Kudrin, to resign. Putin adds promises for grandiose Soviet-mega projects to develop the desolate and decrepit Far East. His $15 billion bribe to Ukraine in December 2013 drains reserves still more.
It’s understandable the regime naturally turns up the AgitProp. Putin’s State-controlled media is doing everything it can to manufacture artificial “us” versus “them”.
What is the regime promoting? A toxic blend of revanchism added to ethnic and religious chauvinism that trumpets a “Russianness” brutalizing the needy and marginal. Even the Kremlin is concerned about how how to keep this environment sustainable, fearing a slide toward nihilism or spontaneous ‘chaos’ (organization) without something more.
Enter Sochi. Its essential mission — sell Russians that Putin’s noxious mixture is internationally mainstream. Revanchism with a patina of glossy, Daft Punk-loving globalism. The squalor and bigotry of Russian daily life hidden by Euro disco hip sheen.
Why Sochi Is Not Berlin
Comparisons to 1936 and Berlin miss this critical point: Putin needed Sochi because he and Russia are weak. His elites increasingly tempted to think past or through him. 1936 by contrast? The Corporal, 2 years after the famous Nuremberg rally memorialized on film, totally controlled his elites and populace. Germany’s economy boomed.
1936 declared the regime to the world. 2014 asks the world for help to make Putin’s regime look cool.
Of course, global perceptions matter. World leaders boycotting Sochi hurts. But the regime is adept turning real and imagined hurts into daily AgitProp fodder. Watching and reading the regime’s lieutenants and sycophants’ reactions to the games instructive. Not just their unhinged anger over a U.S.-Russia hockey game. Day in and day out while the games unfold the regime can’t mask its true psychology of petty resentment or rages that few Americans will ever see or care to see.
Two questions today: How long will Putin enjoy a post-Sochi halo? And was it worth the cost?
On the latter, our answer is clear. The regime faces a looming, possibly severe crisis at home with a faltering economy. Sochi may help distract by buttressing Russian self-identity and vague global legitimacy. Sochi’s reprieve – if it’s real – for Putin is worth its weight in gold. For a little while.