The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia may be a blessing in disguise.
Despite Russia’s poor human rights record, widespread allegations of massive graft involving the Olympic construction, and Sochi’s perilous proximity to pockets of Islamist separatist insurgency, the Olympics that opened Friday have already made a lot of people happy.
A recent poll, conducted in Russia by the independent Levada Center, found that nearly a half of those surveyed blamed corruption for the huge cost overruns that made Sochi the most expensive Olympics ever, with 34 percent blaming the cost overruns on “greedy contractors.” Nineteen percent blamed poor government oversight. Kremlin-affiliated entrepreneurs have made off with billions of dollars — some analysts argue with most — of the $51 billion spent on the Olympics.
Almost 40 percent of those polled said the main reason Russia sought to host the games was to give Russian officials an opportunity to plunder the state budget. Seventeen percent said boosting the image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage was the main purpose for hosting the games. Only 23 percent said it was done for the good of the country.
But the same poll revealed that the majority of Russians, 53 percent, approve of the fact that the Olympics are being held in their country anyway.
Then there are the people of western Ukraine, who also have a reason to celebrate.
As long as the games last, people in western Ukraine can be reasonably sure that Russian tanks won’t roll into Ukraine to decide the future of the country, which hangs in balance between the pro-European opposition and the Russia-leaning government supported by the Russian-speaking populace of the eastern part of the country. After months of civil unrest, the situation in Ukraine has started to slip out of control by the Russia-leaning government as the pro-European opposition has gained sway over the major cities in western Ukraine.
With two U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea off the coast of Sochi — there in case Americans need to be evacuated — Ukraine may reasonably expect the Kremlin to refrain from military interference.
The European Union and its main ally, the United States, have until the end of the Games to try to secure a peaceful resolution of the crisis through economic incentives and political maneuvering.
There are reports that the European Union is working on a plan for a large short-term financial aid package for Ukraine in a bidding war with Moscow for Ukraine’s loyalty. The Wall Street Journal reported that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced he was putting on hold negotiations with the opposition until he has talked to President Putin.
It remains to be seen, however, whether all those good things don’t come at the expense of the Olympic athletes, who are risking trauma while competing on barely finished facilities, or at the expense of spectators, who risk falling prey to Islamist separatist militants from Russia’s North Caucasus region who have vowed to attack the Games.
If the presence of nearly 100,000 police and security forces prevents terrorist attacks at the Olympics, Mr. Putin will have pulled off the Russian Winter Olympics spectacle.
Mr. Putin has staked his reputation on the safety of the Olympics. But that’s a gamble, primarily because police in Russia are notoriously corrupt.