The conventional wisdom going into this winter’s Sochi Olympic Games was that the global spectacle likely would serve as a propaganda victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin, legitimizing his authoritarian regime with the shiny veneer of worldwide participation. But the combination of a potent terrorist threat, the ongoing fracas over the government’s treatment of and attitude toward gays, and a new report from opposition activist Alexei Navalny detailing the enormous cost of the endeavor is threatening to ruin Putin’s fun — and perhaps even dent his power.
Putin’s image is centered around his incredible masculinity, a tough-guy-cum-head-of-state capable of warding off all threats, military or otherwise. So the increased speculation by foreign governments that terrorist attacks are possible and even likely, as the U.K. suggested Monday, has to frustrate the Kremlin’s PR squad. The same goes for the substantial preparations being undertaken by the United States and its military forces in Europe in case of disaster. An actual attack that kills foreign dignitaries or athletes would be exponentially worse, damaging Putin’s claim to being steward of the nation.
As for the continued jousting between Russian pols and the rest of Planet Earth over gay rights, this is a fight Putin surely saw coming and had no significant reservations about. And he’d much rather take flack for having reactionary views toward gays than see his aura of security disrupted. But one suspects the comical statements emanating from Russia — the latest being Sochi’s own mayor claiming his city has no gay residents — will eventually coalesce into a genuine distraction.
Finally, Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who came in as a strong second-place finisher in last year’s Moscow mayoral race, has struck again, unveiling on Monday (to plenty of Western media outlets) a scathing report that suggests the games have already cost Russia far more than Putin or Kremlin officials are letting on thanks to rampant corruption. Navalny’s latest barb is unlikely to convince wide swaths of the public (which continue to look fondly on Putin) that their president is no good, but it could inculcate resentment in impoverished areas that so many national resources are being diverted toward a fleeting event like this one.
None of this is to say the Games can’t still go off without incident, or that Putin and his government are not — still, even now — delighted at the opportunity to host them. But what was looking like a clean victory for the Kremlin is increasingly fraught with risk, and has the potential to strike at the heart of the president’s political identity.