If You Want to Shame Russia, Words Aren't Enough

A preliminary-round match of women’s ice hockey between the United States and Olympic Athletes from Russia, February 13, 2018. Reuters/Grigory Dukor

This is a dangerous and unstable approach to dealing with Russia: strong rhetoric backed by lukewarm action.

For some reason, the international community never seems to learn the lessons of recent attempts to “shame” Russia into closer compliance with its rules and mandates, or finding ways to generate pressure on the Kremlin to change its behavior. This time, it has been the turn of the International Olympic Committee.

Russia followed a well-worn playbook in responding to charges that the government systemically encouraged the use of illicit substances to enhance the performance of athletes competing under the tricolor, honing responses already deployed after the annexation of Crimea and allegations of election interference in recent European and American elections. First came the absolute and complete denial of any wrongdoing—and, in parallel, the excuse that every major power breaks the rules when it suits them, and that only Russia was being singled out for its transgressions. When sanctions were under consideration, the Kremlin and related civil-society groups threatened severe countersanctions should any actions be taken to punish Russia for its nonexistent transgressions, while arguing that the matter was closed and it was time to “move on.” Finally, and particularly for domestic consumption, the official Russian response was both to lament how Russia was being unfairly persecuted (with intimations that Russian success—in annexing Crimea, deploying “soft power” or producing medal-winning Olympic teams—had aroused jealousy and resentment), while celebrating the crafty use of power that enabled Russia to bargain down any penalties and, in the case of the Olympics, literally stay in the game.

Initially, the Olympic Committee was mulling a complete and wholescale ban of all Russian athletes from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. This would have been an unprecedented step. Having rhetorically broached this possibility, however, the committee began, in reality, to back away from it, beginning to slowly compromise its initial opening position. Russia would not be allowed to field a national team, but “Olympic Athletes from Russia” would be permitted to compete, with bans extended only against specific individuals for egregious doping violations. This team would not be allowed to march under the tricolor or have the national anthem played, since they are, in theory, competing as “neutral individuals”—but nothing prevents large numbers of Russian fans from packing the stands, waving flags and making clear that OAR competitors are in fact representing the motherland. The IOC may even concede the right of the Russian athletes to attend the closing ceremonies marching as a Russian team.

As with Western sanctions—imposed over Crimea, Ukraine or elections—Moscow is developing a highly creative response to find ways to route around penalties. Russian president Vladimir Putin can thus vociferously complain about Russia being singled out and humiliated, pointing to his prowess in gutting some of these restrictions to gain his 60 percent solution. Simultaneously, he can say that despite initial proclamations from the IOC and Western governments, Russian athletes are competing in Korea and, as Rafael Aruntunyan, who currently coaches American athletes competing at the games, has said, “Everyone will know they are Russians if they have a flag or not.”

Russia appears to be moving beyond the tit-for-tat approach to Western sanctions in favor of a strategy of complaint and maneuverability—with the latter requiring more deft responses that can appeal to the interests of specific Western groups (especially companies) to encourage them to minimize or even circumvent sanctions. Despite a great deal of pressure from both the Obama and the Trump administrations, for instance, Germany has moved ahead with granting the approvals for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while German companies are signing new deals with Rosneft, the sanctioned Russian energy major, to more closely interconnect the Russian and German energy and petrochemical industries. EU and U.S. efforts to prevent the Russian plans to bypass Ukraine from coming to fruition haven’t delivered any major deathblows to either Nord Stream or the related Turkish Stream project, and Russian continues to expand its military and economic footholds in the greater Middle East. Putin and other officials may privately be filled with rage over the petty humiliations that Russian athletes have to suffer in Korea—the drab gray uniforms, the use of the five-ringed Olympic flag—but, like Don Corleone in The Godfather, they are willing to suffer those humiliations if it improves and strengthens their overall strategic position.

And the Olympics are reconfirming, to them, an important strategic lesson: so far, the West’s rhetoric about holding Russia to account for its transgressions far outstrips its willingness to put actual skin in the game to enforce the rules. In some ways, the IOC would have been better served by not staking out a maximalist position on Russian participation in the Winter Games, because what has transpired over the last few months is not any sincere Russian repentance for past misdeeds, but a series of unilateral concessions on the part of the Olympic committee that undercut any initial shock to Russia of a complete and total ban.

This is a dangerous and unstable approach to dealing with Russia: strong rhetoric backed by lukewarm action. In particular, the Kremlin has assessed that the West seems unwilling to impose any penalties that would also extract a major cost on its side. Russia is already regaining a sense of confidence that it can ride out Western objections to its policies, and that sooner or later affairs can return to business as usual.

Here, Walter Lippman’s advice remains as relevant today as it did seventy years ago: when it comes to Russia, we cannot have an imbalance between our statements and our actions. Haphazard sanctions, military gestures and grand statements will neither deter Russia nor bring about a change in action. We must either rightsize the rhetoric to align with the punitive force we are willing to employ, or sit down and bargain, from a position of strength, acceptable compromises. The 2018 games show us the futility of employing the shaming tactic if it is not backed by something more substantial.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the Captain Jerome E. Levy chair of economic geography and national security at the Naval War College. He is also a contributing editor to the National Interest. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: A preliminary-round match of women’s ice hockey between the United States and Olympic Athletes from Russia, February 13, 2018. Reuters/Grigory Dukor