Here we go again.
Eight years ago tensions bristled between Russia and Ukraine on the eve of a Winter Olympic Games. Russia had its sights on Crimea, the long-disputed region then under the Ukraine flag. Then the pause button was pushed, just in time for the Sochi Olympics.
Just in time for Russian President Vladimir Putin to play host to the first Olympics in the country since the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.
Putin, a frequent habitue of the Black Sea center for holiday-makers, had opened the sluices for billions of rubles of investment to make Sochi a year-round destination.
The Russian President clearly recognized the risk military moves against Ukraine posed for the image of Sochi. Gunfire and rumbling tanks would occupy the headlines from Russia, turning the Olympics into an asterisk. He was determined that didn’t happen.
Putin is the ultimate tactician. The former KGB officer is practiced in making the moves that play like a game of three-dimensional chess.
So his move for the Sochi Olympics was to keep them unmolested by the taint of war and international politics: Putin hit the pause button on Ukraine; the Olympic Truce in action.
In just two weeks Vladimir Putin is expected to be among the world leaders in the stands at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics. As the guest of Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, Putin would be loathe to spoil the same glory of the moment for Xi that Putin enjoyed in 2014.
An offensive strike against Ukraine ahead of the Olympics would certainly take away from Putin’s presence in Beijing. And with the U.S., Canada, U.K. and a few other nations observing a diplomatic boycott of Beijing over human rights issues, Putin will be the top dog in town for the Olympics. He can be expected to seize whatever advantage might be gained from the absence of antagonists like the U.S. Beijing will be a platform for Putin as statesman.
Vladimir Putin is one cool customer. After meeting him a number of times through the years, I have noticed his even-keeled demeanor. There’s an intensity to his eyes, like a tachometer measuring the RPMs of the gears spinning in his head. A slightly sardonic smile is the only deviation from Putin’s usual poker face.
Putin was at ease the last time I spoke with him, the day after the Sochi Olympics. He had spent the morning congratulating staff and volunteers at the IOC hotel. Walking through the lobby with IOC President Thomas Bach, the two presidents stopped for a brief chat. Putin said he was satisfied with Sochi and generally pleased with the results, even though that included an early departure of the Russian men’s hockey team.
“We can do better,” he said, speaking in German with Bach playing the part of an impromptu translator.
As it turned out, Putin likely had more on his mind than hockey.
Three days later, with the Olympics no longer providing a reason to delay, Russian forces began a takeover of Crimea. Putin’s calm visage the day after the Sochi Olympics gave not a hint of the machinations underway
Diplomats are spending this weekend dealing with the latest crisis in Ukraine-Russia relations. Ukraine wants to preserve the nation created with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Russians believe some, if not all of Ukraine should be in Russia. It’s a fair bet there will be no accord by Feb. 4, the date for opening ceremony in Beijing.
But neither will there be any Russian incursion to shatter the shield of the Olympic truce. Expect that Vladimir Putin will hit the pause button ahead of the Olympics.
If history provides any lessons, look for Mr. Putin to punch the play button Feb. 21, the day after closing ceremony in Beijing.
Here we go again.