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Securing Sochi: Soft Power Ambitions & Putin’s Potemkin Village

Series on Sochi 2014

February 4, 2014

Series on Sochi

This article is part of the Ellison Center blog Series on Sochi. Click here to read more as we cover the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Russia! 


By Sarah McPhee

The shores of the Black Sea rise to meet the picturesque mountains of the Caucasus in Sochi, and it is universally agreed that this is a special place in the world. Russia aggressively pursued the privilege to host a special event here, the 2014 Winter Olympics, to increase international prestige, stoke national pride, and strengthen an emerging hegemony in Eurasia.

Sochi, Russia | Photo | David Pedler

Spearheaded by President Vladimir Putin, the Russian Federation hopes to demonstrate an epic feat of both hard and soft power, imbuing the Sochi Games with the potential to be highly dramatic. The drama unfolds in one of the most fascinating areas of the world, a subtropical climate at the base of the Caucasus, bordering malevolent warlords, long-time refugees, and a recently-invaded satellite state. Russia’s resort town of Sochi is metamorphosing to host the Winter Olympics in February 2014, where Russian oligarchs and international corporations are personally invested to the tune of $50 billion on a project that is too big to fail.

Once a sanatorium destination for Soviet workers, Sochi’s civic infrastructure was a relic of Soviet era charm. Great expectations for Sochi have resulted in a reimagining of the region at the expense of the unique ecosystem and the people living there. While Sochi may embody Russia’s modern aspirations, the Olympics also emphasize Russia’s security dilemmas: questionable regime security, terrorism and transnational crime, as well as human rights issues stemming from the institutional weakness of a quasi-authoritarian state.

The 2014 Olympic Games have become a beacon of interest for global speculation. Forbes’ “Most Powerful Man” supposedly thwarted the near-invasion of Syria, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, and engineered the Ukrainian rejection of the European Union. Putin’s Games have the distinction of being the most expensive Olympics to date. With the media coverage surrounding Pussy Riot, Russia’s recent antigay propaganda law, and the Volgograd bombings, international interest is piqued.

The Winter Olympics may be a daunting challenge for Sochi, but if all goes well, Russia is hoping to cast itself in a different light. Similar to the afterglow of the Beijing Olympics, Sochi is in some ways a coming-out ball for modern Russia. Putin would like to project a strong, stable, modern, and gracious image through the success of the games to increase Russia’s international appeal and soft power agency.

Soft power, a term coined by Joseph Nye in 1990, is “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies. When our policies are seen as legitimate in the eyes of others, our soft power is enhanced.” Under the USSR, Russia enjoyed a significant level of soft power, although the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia illustrated that brutal policies undermine a positive reputation. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, economic woes, corruption, mysterious deaths, irregular elections, and controversial laws have continued to erode Russia’s political legitimacy.

This is a genuine diplomatic problem for Russia; “when countries make their power legitimate in the eyes of others, they encounter less resistance to their wishes” (Nye, 1990). Putin enjoys a great deal of compliance within his own sphere of influence, but to elevate Russia’s global position to that of hegemony (a goal he flatly denies), he has begun to understand the limits of hard power.

The recent diplomatic “victories” in Syria and Ukraine only temporarily buoyed his prestige and asserted Russia’s already significant global influence.  Despite the recent terrorist attacks, the Olympics may continue as planned and as everyone hopes. Nevertheless, this will be accomplished with a show of hard power and the assistance of foreign security advisors, lending less credibility to the narrative that Putin is the most powerful man in the world. According to Nye, soft power “…is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it. It is also the ability to attract, and attraction often leads to acquiescence.”

Work Cited
Joseph Nye. The Changing Nature of Soft Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), x.

Sarah is a 2015 REECAS master’s student.