Notwithstanding a horrific act of terrorism, Feb. 7, 2014 — the day Russian President Vladimir Putin proudly opens the 22nd Olympic Winter Games in Sochi — may well be remembered more for who wasn’t in attendance than for the tens of thousands of cheering fans who were.
Neither President Barack Obama nor first lady Michelle Obama plan to make an appearance. Nor will Vice President Joe Biden or his wife Jill — marking the first time since 2000 that an Olympics begins or ends without a U.S. president, vice president, first lady or former president in the viewing stands. Adding insult to injury, Obama made sure to include two openly gay athletes in the official U.S. delegation: tennis star Billie Jean King and two-time Olympic hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow.
It’s not just the Americans who are snubbing Putin on what is supposed to be the longtime Russian leader’s moment of glory. Other world leaders on the no-show list for the opening ceremony: British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President François Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of Canada, Belgium, Georgia and Moldova.
On the other hand, Russian security forces will be on the lookout for someone else in the crowd: Ruzanna Ibragimova, the widow of an Islamic militant believed to be at large in Sochi. She’s one of several wanted “black widows,” female suicide bombers seeking vengeance for the deaths of husbands or male relatives in Russia’s longstanding battle against Islamic insurgents in the Caucasus. And she’s not the only terrorist with their eye on the ultimate prize: disrupting the Winter Games.
Sergey Kislyak — Putin’s top diplomat in Washington — is well aware of how much Russia’s reputation is riding on the Olympics. But as for the whole debate over gay rights, he thinks that aspect has been overblown and obscures the bigger story about Sochi.
“I understand how the press here works. They need hot issues in order to be read, to have high circulation,” said Kislyak, interviewed by this member of the press on Jan. 13 at his stately residence on 16th Street over tea and chocolates. “This is not only an American phenomenon. But I start every working day reading about Russia from the news clips my staff prepares, and I would say it’s not the most encouraging reading.”
Gay-rights advocates though are understandably furious with Moscow’s recent approval of legislation that criminalizes the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” in the presence of minors, effectively barring gay rights parades and discussion of the issue in the media or in the classroom, since children might be exposed to it. (The government legalized homosexuality itself in 1993.)
But the ambassador says Russia has been unfairly stereotyped in Western media over an issue that simply isn’t a priority for most Russians. He laments that there’s hardly been any ink spilled over just what Moscow has achieved by staging such a high-profile event in Sochi, a Black Sea resort located near the Caucasus Mountains, just a dozen miles from the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia.
When it comes to Sochi, that achievement is impressive, at least on paper.
Engineers had to essentially build much of the large-scale infrastructure projects from scratch on a thin slice of land wedged between the mountains and the sea, prone to both flooding and mild weather. Eleven new sports venues seating a total of 120,000 people have been constructed around Sochi, normally home to 400,000 inhabitants. Sochi’s Olympic Village will host 6,000 athletes, and roughly 13,000 members of the press are expected to converge on the city.
“Hosting the Olympics is always a very significant event for any country. It’s also a kind of festival of friendship. We are very proud that Russia was selected as a venue for the Winter Olympics. This is an opportunity for people to learn more about our country,” said Kislyak, who rarely grants interviews to U.S. media outlets and was speaking to The Washington Diplomat for the first time since his arrival in the United States.
“Sochi is one of the few places where we enjoy access to a warm climate,” he added. “By building sport facilities there, by renovating the infrastructure — including transportation to the mountains — we have also developed a region that will be used by Russian citizens for decades to come.”
But a terrorist attack could also be remembered for decades to come and could ruin everything for Putin, who’s staked his legacy on Russia’s Olympic ambitions.
On Jan. 10, the State Department issued a travel warning urging Americans to “be vigilant” about the potential for extremist violence at the Sochi Games, calling it “an attractive target for terrorists,” though it said no specific security threat exists.
Said Kislyak: “This is a typical State Department advisory. Had I written it, I would have done it quite differently. We are taking fierce measures to ensure safety and security so people can be very much relaxed.”
Those “fierce measures” follow two suicide bombings in late December that targeted public transportation in Volgograd, 600 miles from Sochi. The twin blasts — one at the city’s railway station, the other on a trolleybus — left more than 30 people dead, injured more than 60, and put the entire country on edge.
It’s put the entire world on edge, in fact, as a barrage of warnings and threats ahead of the Olympics rattled nerves and even had some athletes expressing concerns about safety in Sochi. Moscow insists the Games — surrounded by a supposed 1,500-mile “ring of steel” — are secure. It’s dispatched a reported 100,000 security personnel led by the Federal Security Service to Sochi, including 40,000 police officers and 30,000 armed forces. Russia’s 58th Army will patrol the nearby Georgian border, while a high-tech army of drones, sonar systems, reconnaissance robots, internet and phone monitoring systems, and other security measures will provide round-the-clock surveillance. All ticket-holders must undergo mandatory background checks, and U.S. warships are standing nearby in case they need to evacuate American citizens.
Sochi may be on lockdown, but that has prompted fears that other Russian cities could be exposed to attacks by terrorists seeking to spoil the Games any way they can.
Chechen rebel warlord Doku Umarov, self-proclaimed leader of the “Caucasus Emirate,” called for disrupting the Sochi Olympics; in mid-January, reports surfaced that Umarov had been killed by Russian security forces, although such claims have been made in the past.
Regardless, “Umarov is more of a symbolic leader of the Islamist extremists than an actual commander-in-chief,” Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told the Council on Foreign Relations shortly after the Volgograd bombings.
Trenin says the deeper issue is Islamist extremism in Chechnya, Dagestan and elsewhere, fueled by Moscow’s heavy-handed crackdown. “Islamist extremism in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus has the support of a significant portion of the population; otherwise, it would have been crushed. This support is driven by the widely shared feelings of inequality and injustice; an atmosphere of widespread corruption among local elites; and, very importantly, poor prospects for getting ahead in life,” he argues.
Kislyak, however, points out that the vast majority of Russia’s 24 million Muslims are “law-abiding citizens and are well respected in Russian society.”
Even so, he warned, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists. They do not represent anybody, so we will exterminate them.”
Ten years ago, Kislyak’s predecessor in Washington, Yuri Viktorovich Ushakov, uttered nearly identical words following the Beslan school siege of September 2004 — in which Islamic separatists took some 1,200 people hostage in North Ossetia. The drama ended with a botched Russian rescue operation, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 hostages, including 186 children.
“Terrorists will never stop killing us,” Ushakov said at the time, “if they are not eliminated with all the power and might of our nation and that of the civilized world.”
Russia has spared no expense to project power and might at Sochi, but that has come at a heavy cost — a staggering $51 billion, which could very well go down as the world’s most expensive, and perhaps most corrupt, sporting event in history.
In January, a Swiss member of the Geneva-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) suggested that up to one-third of Sochi’s construction and development budget had been embezzled or siphoned off in the form of bribes and kickbacks. Gian-Franco Kasper, longtime president of the International Ski Federation, told Swiss media that contracts had been given to a “construction mafia” of businessmen linked to the Kremlin and specifically to Putin himself — a charge echoed by Russian sources as well.
“We’ve been trying to interest the IOC in this issue for quite awhile, but to no avail,” complained Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian deputy prime minister, outspoken Putin critic and author of a study that details the corruption he says has pervaded the Sochi Games. Nemtsov told the Christian Science Monitor that “though there has been considerable attention to the issue of gay rights in advance of the Olympics, and the IOC has taken a stand on this, they have largely ignored corruption, environmental destruction and other types of human rights violations that have been occurring.”
In “The Waste and Corruption of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics,” Bloomberg Businessweek reported that cost was never really an issue for Putin, although even he’s grown fed up with the economic mismanagement.
“Putin never saw the Sochi Olympics as a mere sporting event, or even a one-of-a-kind public-relations opportunity. Rather, he viewed the Games as a way to rejuvenate the entire Caucasus region,” wrote Joshua Yaffa. “But since then, as costs have increased, Russian officials have grown less eager to boast about the size of the final bill,” he added, noting that the tab surpasses the $40 billion China spent on the Beijing Summer Games, even though it had three times as many events.
“It’s received wisdom in Moscow that the state will crack down on at least some of the more egregious cases of fraud and abuse in Olympic construction — once the Games are over and attention has moved on,” Yaffa wrote.
The ambassador doesn’t deny that corruption is a reality, although he questions Kasper’s allegation that $18 billion in taxpayer funds has “disappeared” into thin air.
“We have a lot of organizations that are very watchful as to how money is spent,” he said. “But I doubt that these kinds of figures are even in the ball park.”
On the contrary, Kislyak says Moscow is doing everything it can to fight the cancer of corruption (in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia ranked 127th among 176 countries, slightly better than Bangladesh, Honduras and Nigeria).
“The Russian media very energetically discusses these problems. There are cases of corruption that are very troubling to us,” he said. “The president has made very concerted efforts to get the prime minister [Dmitry Medvedev] to combat corruption. I think we are making good strides on this. You need to understand that modern Russia is only 22 years old. It’s a young market economy. We have gone through a transformation — from a system based on central planning by the state to a market economy — that not one single other country has gone through. We can be proud of what we have achieved.”
Kislyak, 63, is Russia’s fifth ambassador here since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. He’s now in the sixth year of his assignment, an eternity for diplomats normally accustomed to three-year postings. But Kislyak is a relative newbie compared to Anatoly Dobrynin, whose 24-year tenure as the Soviet envoy in Washington stretched from the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986.
Even so, Kislyak is no stranger to American ways.
The diplomat, who’s fluent in both English and French, served from 1981 to 1985 as second secretary at Moscow’s mission to the United Nations in New York, then transferred to Washington as first secretary at the Soviet Embassy here, a post he held until 1989. In 2003, after a five-year stint as ambassador to Belgium and NATO, he was named Russia’s deputy minister of foreign affairs — leaving that job five years later to come to Washington.
“I arrived here in early September 2008. It was a very difficult period, the lowest point in our relations since the end of the Cold War,” he recalled. “It was the time of the Georgian invasion and we had big differences with the United States. It wasn’t easy. I remember I started my first working day after presenting my credentials at the White House by making two speeches, explaining the Russian position.”
The invasion Kislyak refers to is Georgia’s brief but bloody war with Russia, which killed about 400 Georgians and created 30,000 internal refugees. According to a European Union-led fact-finding mission, the August 2008 war was sparked when the former Soviet republic’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, ordered an attack on separatists in South Ossetia, one of two disputed territories with Russia (Abkhazia being the other). Moscow retaliated, seizing on the apparent miscalculation to firmly put the two breakaway regions under Russian control.
“Things started improving and after the elections, President Obama proposed the reset, which we took very seriously. I think we have responded in a very constructive fashion. Russian-American relations are important under all circumstances,” Kislyak said. “Is everything so rosy and positive? Of course not, but our relations have never been simple. They have always been complex, and we certainly have irritants in our relationship. As far as I’m concerned, relations are much more productive than we are given credit for.”
Kislyak said people frequently ask him whether the “reset” in bilateral ties — famously hyped (and mistranslated) by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March 2009 — is now dead in the water. His response is that Moscow and Washington completed talks to reduce strategic nuclear weapons, implemented the “1-2-3 agreement” on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and worked together on Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization, among other things.
“WTO entry is a recognition of Russia’s status as a full market economy and opens up additional opportunities for businesses from both countries,” the ambassador said. “The United States was willing to do this because it serves American business interests, which is fine with us. The more business, the better it is for both our economies.”
Yet a Google search of the words “Russian reset” pulls up more than 45 million entries — led by articles titled “Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia: What went wrong?” (The Week) and “President Obama’s Russia reset unravels” (Politico).
“The story of the administration’s ‘reset’ policy toward Russia is a case study in how the heady idealism of Mr. Obama’s first term has given way to the disillusionment of his second,” New York Times reporter Peter Baker concluded last September. “Critics say he was naïve to think he could really make common cause with Moscow. Aides say it was better to try than not, and it did yield tangible successes in arms control, trade and military cooperation before souring.”
The final nail in the “reset” coffin was Putin’s August 2013 decision to give safe haven to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower whose leaks have deeply embarrassed the White House. Moscow’s offer of asylum to Snowden prompted Obama to cancel a one-on-one meeting he had scheduled with Putin while in St. Petersburg to attend the G-20 summit in September.
Asked why the Kremlin was willing to risk its relationship with Washington to protect the 30-year-old former NSA employee, Kislyak said it’s actually very simple.
“Mr. Snowden is an American citizen. He was traveling through Russia. He didn’t come by invitation. He saw his passport revoked by U.S. authorities when he arrived, so he wasn’t able to continue his journey,” the ambassador explained. “We do not have an extradition treaty with the United States, so there is no legal basis on which we could have extradited him. He hasn’t violated any Russian laws, and certainly he got into a situation that was very unique, so we gave him temporary status to live in Russia. But from a historical perspective, this will be a short-lived problem. We have significantly more important issues on the U.S.-Russian agenda.”
One of those issues is Syria — and the reported use of chemical weapons by Moscow’s longtime patron, President Bashar al-Assad, whose country’s civil war has claimed an estimated 130,000 lives since it erupted in March 2011.
In September, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, struck a deal to destroy those weapons and avert a threatened U.S. military strike, for which Congress and the American public had little appetite. The night the accord was signed in Geneva, Dmitry Kiselyov — anchorman of the main weekly news show on Russian state TV — declared that the “diplomatic duel” between Moscow and Washington had ended in “the great victory of Russia” thanks to Putin’s skills as a global peacemaker, while the White House had seen its “geopolitical amateurishness swept away, leaving only the ruins of narcissism.”
Kislyak, engaging in diplomatic niceties, denies that his government really sees things that way.
“We never considered this to be a victory for one politician or another,” he said. “What we found together is a solution that is best for all. This was discussed between the two presidents and is something the foreign ministries agreed to implement. I’m positively surprised how efficient and productive this process of establishing the modalities of the disposition of chemical weapons has been achieved in Syria.”
Regarding Moscow’s backing of Assad against the rebels and Islamic extremists hoping to overthrow him, Kislyak claims — not very convincingly — that his government is impartial.
“We don’t support any particular person. What we support is the right of the Syrians to decide what is right and wrong, but I mean all the Syrians,” he insists. “What we are working toward now is a peace conference, a political dialogue that presupposes it’s something the Syrians will negotiate themselves. I hope they will come to the table. If they are to achieve something, it will have to be a mutual compromise. There is no military solution to the issue. It has to be found through political negotiations.” (As of press time, the Syrian government and opposition had only managed to trade barbs and accusations at one another at the so-called Geneva II peace talks.)
In general, Kislyak says Russia is “definitely not” fairly covered by U.S. media — a complaint that stems from the Cold War, characterized by decades of mutual suspicion.
“Here’s a very simple example,” he said. “For years and years, the American press has reported on our looming demographic catastrophe, forecasting that Russia’s population would shrink. But we’ve invested in health care and encouraged younger people to have children. As a result of our very intensive efforts, we have seen a drastic change. It’s not a level we are satisfied with, but we’re no longer losing population. But have you seen a single article on this? I haven’t.”
Actually, Forbes magazine reported, in a May 2013 article titled “Russia’s Population Isn’t Shrinking (It’s Growing Very, Very Slowly),” that the country stopped losing people in the early 2000s and that it now has around 143.3 million inhabitants — about 100,000 more than it had in 2006 — but that this growth is almost entirely being driven by immigration rather than any increase in fertility rates. Russia now ranks ninth in world population — way behind Pakistan, Nigeria and Bangladesh — and ahead of Japan and Mexico. By 2050, unless current trends are reversed, vast Russia could have only 107 million citizens.
The press, and average Russians for that matter, will no doubt continue to debate what’s ahead for the one-time superpower. Will Putin, who’s ruled the country in one form or another since 2000, become a modern-day tsar? Will he revive the country’s geopolitical prestige, pulling nations like Ukraine into its orbit? Will the Russians implement real economic reforms, or continue to bank on oil and gas revenues? And in the immediate term, will Putin pull off his audacious bid to host the Olympics without a hitch?
Whatever the future holds, Kislyak says he’ll keep pushing back against the oversimplification of his complex homeland.
“As is the goal of any ambassador, my job is to build productive ties and overcome the stereotypes that are still haunting us,” he told us. “Our differences will always remain, but we must also be mindful of things we can do together, to have more interactions between people, especially among the younger generation. They need to understand what Russia is, and what it is not.”
In that regard, the diplomat offers a sharp contrast to his 50-year-old counterpart in Moscow, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who has nearly 59,000 followers on his Twitter account — including Kislyak himself. Just as Kislyak complains that U.S. media doesn’t always treat Russia fairly, McFaul hasn’t exactly been warmly embraced by the press in Russia either.
Yet Twitter has given McFaul a platform from which to reach out to young Russians, particularly since the big TV networks began ignoring him.
“McFaul’s popularity is especially noteworthy considering the recent tension between Washington and Moscow, not to mention the distinctly anti-American tone of the reporting by Russia’s state-dominated mainstream media,” wrote Foreign Policy’s Anna Nemtsova.
Asked about that, Kislyak responded: “I read his tweets from time to time. It would be inappropriate to say whether he’s trying to bypass the government or not. I know Mike for a long time, and he seems to be enjoying his job. I’m not as avid a Twitter user as he is. I prefer to speak to the audience. I love talking to people and being forced to answer questions.”
Yet, sensing that he’d already answered enough of our questions, we decided to ask the envoy one more: Whether he’s satisfied with the overall state of U.S.-Russian ties?
“We could do better,” Kislyak responded. “Look how we cooperate in space. I visited the Houston Space Center and saw how Russian cosmonauts and American astronauts work together, living as one scientific family. This cooperation has become immune to the political crises on the ground. When Russia and the U.S. work together, things get done. But when we work against each other, it’s almost a recipe for failure.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.