Putin sees 'containment' in West's Sochi criticism. Does he have a point?

The foreign coverage of Sochi has been full of reports of ephemeral foibles, spurring Putin's complaints. But the media have also raised serious issues that Russia has yet to address.

David J. Phillip/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin (c.) poses for a photograph with the Russian team after they placed first in the team figure skating competition at the Winter Olympics on Sunday.

Western journalists have engaged in a good deal of arguably trivial sniping at alleged shortcomings in Russia's preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics. But is it all part of a cold war-like campaign to deny Russian successes and slap down an emerging world power?

President Vladimir Putin appears to think so. Even though the Games appear to be off to an excellent start, with massive viewership worldwide and overwhelmingly positive coverage, he told a televised meeting in Sochi Monday that pre-Games criticism of Russia was an echo of the West's "containment" policies toward a globally ambitious USSR in the past.

"A theory took shape in ‘cold war’ times – it was called the deterrence theory. This theory and practical actions were aimed at hindering the development of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, now we are seeing the same thing – the remains of this deterrence theory tend to come out into the open here and there," a Kremlin transcript quotes Mr. Putin as saying.

"Whenever Russia demonstrates any positive development, the appearance of a new strong player, of competition, is bound to cause concern in the economy, in politics and in the security sphere. We see attempts to deter Russia here and there. Unfortunately, this had to do with the Olympic project" as well, he said.

London's example

It is certainly true that Sochi has been the target of sustained criticism in the run-up to the Olympic Games. And the carping of some Western journalists about the quality of their hotel rooms and foul drinking water sounds a bit ungracious, but those are probably ephemeral issues at best.

But many of the more substantive criticisms raised in the run up to the Sochi games, concerning environmental damage, disrupted communities, omnipresent security, cost overruns, shoddy construction, and expensive "white elephant" infrastructure that will have no use after the Games end, may be perfectly valid points rather than spiteful anti-Russian propaganda.

One way to test that is to look at how the Western media covered another Olympics, but this time in a solidly Western place.

A quick Google search will reveal that the British media mercilessly ripped official preparations for the 2012 London Games. Everything from the unsuitability of the London venue to the choice of Olympic logo became the butt of ridicule. The state-owned BBC broadcaster published a list of "10 reasons some people will dread the Olympics," many of which still sound reasonable and seem to mirror the pre-Sochi mood.

Londoners accessed their media megaphone to complain bitterly about problems like suffocating security, while even then-US presidential candidate Mitt Romney got into the act with a controversial declaration that he saw "disconcerting" signs that London might not be up to holding the Games at all.

The London experience certainly suggests that pre-Games griping is as much of feature of the Olympics as the sporting events themselves.

'Our mentality is different'

Some experts point out that the elephant in the room here is the fact that complaints about the preparations for Sochi – while most of them originated with Russian opposition figures, nongovernmental groups, and anti-corruption fighters – have been widely reported by Western journalists but hardly at all by the mainstream Russian media.

Hence, some argue, the relatively free ride Putin gets at home affords him the luxury of blaming foreigners for any negative scrutiny, rather than responding to the issues as Western leaders would have to do.

"It's not a Russian tradition to invite criticism, or to enjoy it," says Oleg Shamonayev, a spokesman for Sport-Express, a leading Moscow sports news daily. "I've noticed that Americans sometimes ask for critical opinions. They seem to think contrary viewpoints are part of the process, but our mentality here is different. Our leaders do not appreciate criticism. And the Sochi Games were Putin's personal project; to criticize the Games is to criticize Putin himself," he says.

Another dimension of this is the growing chasm between Russia and the rest of the developed world over issues like gay rights and what looks like officially sponsored xenophobia in new Russian laws covering the definition of "treason," outside funding for NGOs, or foreign adoptions of Russian children.

The Sochi Games, rightly or wrongly, provided a spotlight for human rights groups and journalists to focus on the serious clash of values that's becoming increasingly apparent, but does that amount to a Western campaign of "containment"?

In an interview with the Kremlin-funded English-language TV network RT, Putin allowed that there are abiding differences between Russia and the direction most other developed countries have been taking, and he seemed to accept the challenge of debating that in a friendly way.

"We don’t have any significant ideological differences," he told RT. "But we do have fundamental cultural differences. Individualism lies at the core of the American identity while Russia has been a country of collectivism.... Russians have different, far loftier ambitions, more of a spiritual kind, it’s more about your relationship with God. We have different visions of life. That’s why it is very difficult to understand each other but it is still possible."

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