The Russians have admitted that they engaged in a long-term conspiracy of drugging-up at the Olympics, “a far-reaching doping operation that implicated scores of Russian athletes.” Yesterday, The New York Times reported that they had chatted up Russian officials and gotten the full confessional scoop. Depressed bigwigs across the entire roided-up spectrum of Russian athletic history talked. If their gains had been huge, so was the shame which followed:
A lab director tampered with urine samples at the Olympics and provided cocktails of performance-enhancing drugs, corrupting some of the world’s most prestigious competitions. Members of the Federal Security Service, a successor to the K.G.B., broke into sample bottles holding urine. And a deputy sports minister for years ordered cover-ups of top athletes’ use of banned substances.
The revelations continued. The Times reported that “not just the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi but also the entire Olympic movement” had been “tainted.” The Times article also contained the sentence “Have you seen the Fancy Bear records?” which, again, is a golden moment in the twilight of 2016.
“Russia never had the opportunities that were given to other countries,” Mr. Smirnov said. “The general feeling in Russia is that we didn’t have a chance,” he added, acknowledging that anabolic steroids like those taken by Russian athletes have never been deemed medically excusable by regulators.
Of all the notes, this is the oddest. Why should the Russians feel they’ve been denied flashiness of any kind? If you go by the Western newspapers, Russian power has never loomed so large. The Putin government is scrutinized by the entire world like you would look at a neighbor who goes out of his way to hunt and dine only on naked mole rats: affecting and impressive in a distasteful way. The Russians meddle in Syria. They re-annex Crimea. They tamper with Ukraine. They flirt with Trump. And, of course, they open-source our elections. How can we not seem them as a threat?
And now this. To the U.S., the Olympics are sacred—as winning always is to people who win often. How many times has America vied with the Russians for power and glory during the games? Do the Russians really need another gold medal? And yet, at a huge risk to their international sporting culture, they pursued it all the same.
The Russian doping situation shows what a strange thing influence is. Putin is exercising soft power, but in an odd way.
The fact is, on its worst day, Russia is a threat to its own citizens, and to journalists, and usually to its neighbors. But to no one else. It can no longer field huge power on land, and very little in the sea. They hold land and a third of the world’s resources, but it is a country ruled from on high by a frustrated government, and everyone knows it.
Of course Russia can meddle in the affairs of nearby states, but it has limited agency: a veto at the United Nations, and pariah status everywhere else. During the past several years, over a million Russians have migrated outside the Federation’s borders. Demographically, the country is getting older, with lower health status. The population is decreasing.
There is widespread corruption on every level. The entire economy is geared for oil export, and all else is secondary. Separatists continue to nudge at the fringes of the map. The thought-leaders of our country might look at Putin and see an unsmiling overlord. I see an autocrat trying to tug a team of thirty strong horses with a single loop of thin twine. In February of this year, citizens of the Federation spent half of their income on food.
The Soviet Union is gone. Even in the most paranoid imaginings of the biggest Russophobe, they can come nowhere close to the leverage they once held. What warrant do they have, then, to shadow so large in the collective anxiety of the globe?
It would be glib as hell to claim that Russia’s gift is not having power, but pretending to have power.
Say instead that Russia has an old problem: they want to exercise a lot of power that they don’t have. This was true even at height of their influence during the Age of Sinatra, and it’s certainly true now. They have a lot to do, and despite all of the resources they have, it never seems to be enough.
Every government wants to expand its influence. Some governments do this through military power. Most countries in the world seek economic supremacy.
Russia is like every government. But Putin has other challenges: how do you keep the Fatherland from sinking into chaos and nationalistic fracturing? How do you demonstrate your national capacity, in a world where everyone is scared of the Russians, and the most powerful country is either trying to oppose or exploit you? The West came into your sphere of influence in Serbia, and again in Syria. That showed a lot of disrespect towards Russia; it never would have happened in the old times. Why was the U.S. arming Assad’s opponents, since that was feeding radical Islam, a huge concern for Russia? These are problems you must deal with. At the same time, you want to protect your own personal power. How do you do it?
If you’re Putin, what you do is soft power. You can’t start a war and your economic prospects are not terrific, since you’re a declining petro-state. So you exercise mastery close to your own shores and borders, where you can. The rest of the time you practice very large, very precise acts of political performance.
You hack overseas, but more importantly, you hack other parts of the established, developed world. You don’t just hack the oil markets. You hack the political parties across the big water. You hack the media of your own country and then hack the notions of what journalistic untouchability means.
And, of course, you continue to hack the Olympics too, because that’s another place where you can dominate, or at least where you can remember what it was to be Russian when the country wasn’t doing so poorly. Honestly, there’s not a lot you can do, so you do what you can.
That is how you rule if you’re Putin, and may explain why Russia always seems to be at the heart of whatever scandal is present. It is not that the Russian government is built to favor international chicanery, but the need is there politically (Putin requires the support of mad nationalists to his right) and the opportunity is there (in the 21st century, the U.S. makes an easy villain), so why not do so? The Russian administration, hungering for glory, will use the edged tools it has, even if they are pen-knives.
For the two generations before mine, there was always the specter of a war with the Bear Across the Water. It hung in the mind: huge, ghastly, a shimmering phantom, horrible to contemplate but impossible to avoid. Schoolchildren were made to duck and cover under public school desks: like the miniskirt, this represented the triumph of imagination over the mundane reality of exposure.
In reality, Russia was not a monolith then. It is not a monolith now, despite Putin’s concentration of power. This is a different world. We’re still thinking in the old way, and that has to change. There won’t be a war. What there will be, instead, is the long, weird, hide-and-seek of soft power, the petty cheats and legerdemain of a regime which is unlikely to fall but is still living on borrowed time.
We can change this by engaging with the Russian people, and we can aid this process by not seeing the nation as a danger to West, but as the unfortunate stage for a weird series of trolling pieces by a collection of oligarchs who long ago outlived their usefulness to the people. If we gaze upon Russia as just one more state—a large country, with a difficult history—than we can deal with them more rationally.
We can also do this by not using Russia as a stage for our own ideas: we sent Larry Summers and the shock doctrine overseas. We helped make Putin. We bear some responsibility for what the country currently is.
There’s an old Turkish military proverb that says “If thy enemy by an ant, see in him a lion.” The cultivation of self-inflicted delusion is a gotta-have for any career in the military or the arts. But nowadays, we see lions everywhere. Anxiety doesn’t make a person safer. It just convinces her that everything is a threat.
And so the same doom-colored glasses that turn Trump into political Voltron convince us Putin and Russia are the Empire, with fingers in every pie and a whisperer in every hallway. But this is wrong. Russia is a big country full of decent people who’ve had a hell of a time. To top it off, they’re led by a first-class weirdo and his hockey-bro friends.
The leadership of Russia is not just doping its athletes, but doping itself: it strives to cut corners, find shortcuts, so it can compete on the world stage. Smirnov is half-correct to say that Russia never had the chances other countries get, but ignores that Russia took chances no other country would. In a land unfairly represented as an expanse of unending winter, it is poetically surprising that its athletic institutions risked everything to seem a little cooler.
And that’s a hint. Our relationship isn’t love-hate or even rivals. Rather, it’s something weird, yet familiar. A woman who wants to push you off a cliff doesn’t stop and discuss her feelings when she gets caught. A man with an intention to stab you doesn’t bother to read your emails and then desperately try to beat you and your preppy friends at the track meet. Mixed messages, conflicted signals, friendship scaling into rivalry and back again. This isn’t Red Dawn. It’s high school.