Vladimir Putin must be worried.
Six-and-a-half years ago, Russia’s president successfully lobbied the International Olympic Committee at its meeting in Guatemala to have his government host the world’s biggest sporting event. Mr. Putin’s arguments (and his pledge to spend a hefty $12 billion on the event) carried the day, with Sochi beating out Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea, to serve as the site of the 2014 Winter Games. The decision was a major political victory for Russia, then still struggling to re-emerge on the world stage.
In the years since, though, Sochi has become an exhibit of stunning corruption. The price tag for the games is now estimated at $55 billion, the most expensive in history and more than the cost of the past 10 Olympiads combined. A third or more of that sum is believed to have been lost to graft.
“The cost of the Olympics in Sochi, given the average world parameters for the increase in costs, should have been $24 billion,” a recent study co-authored by former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov (the current opposition leader) outlines. “The remainder consists of embezzlement and kickbacks.” In the process, it has exposed the fact that Russia’s corruption-ridden economy is rotten to the core.
Sochi also serves as a showcase of Russia’s increasingly troubling domestic policies. In recent months, Mr. Putin has taken a very public stand against equal rights for homosexuals. This summer, the Kremlin passed a law banning “gay propaganda,” which enshrined official discrimination against homosexual relationships and levied stiff fines for the distribution of materials on alternative lifestyles in Russia. Last month, in his annual state of the nation address, Russia’s president issued a spirited defense of his government’s resistance to what he termed “nontraditional values.”
Predictably, political allies of the Kremlin have fallen in line. Most recently, the Russian Orthodox Church has called for a national referendum on outlawing homosexual unions — a move that’s certain to stir controversy because Mr. Putin, despite his prior statements, has promised that homosexual “athletes, fans and guests [will] feel comfortable at the Olympic Games.”
These issues, however, have been dwarfed by the potential security nightmare that now confronts the Kremlin in the Caucasus. Late last month, twin suicide bombings in the southern city of Volgograd, reasonably close to the site of the impending Olympics, refocused international attention on Russia’s long-running struggle with radical Islam. They also hammered home the reality that, despite the Russian government’s assurances to the contrary, Islamic extremism in Russia is not only resilient, but resurgent.
This isn’t just damaging to the credibility of Mr. Putin, who came to power in large part by pledging a stern response to radical Islam, and who years ago gleefully declared that the conflict in Chechnya had, in fact, been won. It is potentially ruinous to his regime’s international image.
Under Mr. Putin, Russia has roared back to international prominence. Over the past six months alone, Moscow has scored a dazzling array of foreign-policy victories, from brokering a deal on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons to orchestrating a last minute U-turn in Ukrainian politics away from Europe. However, an incident at the Winter Games would shatter the carefully constructed facade of Russia’s international prominence that now prevails abroad.
Predictably, Moscow has reacted with a draconian security clampdown. In recent days, the Russian government has deployed an additional 30,000 police and Interior Ministry troops to Sochi to augment the thousands of security personnel already stationed there. Heavy restrictions on mobility have been put in place as well, with only vehicles registered in the city or accredited for the games allowed into the resort town and the movement of individuals tightly controlled. These steps, in the words of one observer, have transformed the town “into a sort of concentration camp.”
They are also a testament to the stakes involved. Russia could very well skate through the Olympic season unscathed, without major incidents on either the humanitarian front or any real threats to the security of the games. Just as easily, however, Mr. Putin’s carefully orchestrated publicity event could backfire, with social unrest or Islamist violence laying bare Russia’s internal fissures to the world, and in the process demolishing the image of a re-emerging world power the Kremlin has worked so diligently to cultivate.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of “Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America” (Regnery, 2013).