Sochi Olympics more than just sport to Putin

By Dale R. Herspring

Most of the commentary on the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, has focused on the danger of a terrorist attack. That danger is real. It is so real that Moscow has sent 40,000 security personnel, including special military forces, to the area. Indeed, security is such an issue that Russian police have gone door to door taking saliva samples from women. The is being do so that if a “black widow” blows herself up and her DNA matches any in the files, police can arrest her relatives.

I have criticized the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but President Obama has acted decisively in phoning Russian President Vladimir Putin and offering devices we use to detect hidden mines. Gen. Martin Dempsey also spoke about it with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s General Staff. The intent — if U.S. equipment is compatible with Russian equipment — is to enable security to disrupt cell phone or radio signals that Islamic radicals use to detonate explosives. Such a move is a radical step for both militaries.  Rus-sians would learn how U.S. equipment works and Americans would learn the state of Russian equipment. That goes against all the rules of intelligence work. Some observers be-lieve Russia will refuse the U.S. offer primarily because it does not want the Americans to see how far behind Russia is.

The United States also has sent two destroyers into the Black Sea, but they will not intervene unless asked to by the Russians, and transport planes in Germany have been placed on alert. The White House has acted responsibly. If the Russians do not take up our offer and a roadside bombing occurs, Russia will have difficult questions to answer

Many question why the Olympic games are being held Sochi, which is surrounded by a politically volatile region. The Winter Games could have been held elsewhere in Russia. The area near Sochi has subtropical weather in summer and offers some of the most beautiful scenery in Russia, on the coast and inland. The reason the Olympics are in Sochi is that Putin decided to put them there.

The Sochi Olympics will cost more than any previous Olympics — summer or winter. The cost has been estimated at $51 billion, far surpassing the $40 billion China spent in 2008 for the Beijing Games. The Sochi Games may also be remembered as one of the most corrupt. Boris Nemtsov, a major voice in Russian politics, suggested that 15 percent of all of the money spent to build the Olympics venues went to companies owned by two of Putin’s childhood friends.

One thing that is absolutely clear is that the Sochi Games have been Putin’s personal project. He has overseen every detail to make sure — as one Russian put it — to show the world that Russia is back — that it can compete with any state when it comes to creating an athletic extravaganza. Just let the Americans complain about the Olympics. They will be laughed out of town.

Putin had another motive for pushing Sochi for the 2014 Olympics. Sochi is about 200 miles south of Chechnya and 300 miles south of Dagestan. The area is a hotbed of radical Islam. The two men who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon were trained, directly or indirectly, in Dagestan. So why did Putin decide on Sochi?  Why not St. Petersburg or the capital of the Pacific, Vladivostok. In my opinion, Putin put the Olympics in the radical Islamists’ back yard to throw down the gauntlet to them.

If the Olympics are safe, the Islamists will lose face. Putin will have stood up to them and won. If the Olympics are marred by a terrorist act, however, Putin’s loss will be tremendous. He becomes almost human — not the great leader that he aspires to be.

Turning an occasion like the Olympics into a political football is wrong. I watch the games as much as possible and find myself amazed at the performances of athletes from all over the world.  The reality, however, is that almost anything today is political. Religious, economic, military issues, etc. are seen in a political sense.  

Let us hope and pray that the Russians are on top of everything and that we are doing our best to help them with security. Let us also hope that the Russian security forces, which are known for their brutality, do not do something stupid. 

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