The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, Feb. 21:
With the Olympics in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped to rivet the world's attention on the New and Improved Russia, a rising-again world power to be reckoned with, a country on the road to global glory.
And why not? Things have been going Putin's way. His brinkmanship forestalled a U.S. strike on Russia's man in Damascus, President Bashar Assad. National Security Agency leaker in chief Edward Snowden is safely ensconced in Moscow, thumbing his nose at Washington. And long-downtrodden Russia now hosts ... an Olympics!
Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead recently summed up Putin's political prowess in The Wall Street Journal:
The most daring and acrobatic figure in Sochi this week isn't a snowboarder; it is Vladimir Putin, whose death-defying geopolitical gamble is the hottest game in town. ... Russian diplomacy is a dazzling spectacle these days - and despite his considerable handicaps, Mr. Putin is skating rings around his clumsy and clueless opponents in Washington and Brussels.
But Sochi isn't a Russian triumph, and we're not just talking about the Russian hockey team's loss to the United States.
The spectacle of Sochi's ice dancers, skiers and snowboarders - the Free World gathered in peaceful competition - now competes for headlines with increasingly bloody, fiery protests in Ukraine that Putin helped ignite.
In brief: Late last year, Ukraine was on the brink of signing a trade and integration deal with the European Union, and many Ukrainians hoped that westward tilt would boost the country's economy and bring genuine democracy.
But such a deal also would have deep-sixed Putin's hope to rebuild a Soviet-like sphere of power over neighboring countries. So Putin persuaded (ahem) Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to snub the EU with a last-minute offer to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and to slash the price of Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine.
Protests erupted. The government cracked down. On Thursday, fighting between police and protesters intensified, triggering fears that Yanukovych would declare a state of emergency and call in the military. The death toll is mounting.
The Olympic spotlight dimmed Sunday when the Games closed. And with that, no more distractions from the status quo ante: The corrosive reality of Vladimir Putin's Russia will again take center stage.
Despite its oil and gas resources, Russia's economy is wobbly, its growth rate last year an anemic 1.3 percent, down from 3.4 percent in 2012. Putin has failed to build a robust, free-market economy or anything close to a full-fledged democracy where dissent is tolerated if not somewhat encouraged. The Kremlin's heavy-handed political, diplomatic and economic tactics spook many investors.
These days, Russians also are enduring the "most severe crackdown against human rights since the collapse of the Soviet Union," says the pro-democracy organization Freedom House. Putin has harassed advocacy organizations under the pretense of shielding Russia from "foreign agents." Many organizations have been subjected to "aggressive and intrusive" inspections, Human Rights Watch says.
One image from this week captures perfectly how Putin's thin-skinned Russia handles criticism: Cossack militias apparently attacked the punk activist group Pussy Riot - young women in neon-colored balaclavas - with pepper spray and whips as they prepared to play a new song, "Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland."
They were whipped for trying to sing a song.
Putin's Iron Curtain has a zero-sum relationship with the West. If Russia reasserts dominance over parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the U.S. and its allies lose. If Ukrainian protesters force a rapprochement between their country and the EU, it is Putin who loses.
Ukraine is on the brink now. It could again become a loyal client state of Russia, firmly under Putin's iron thumb. Or ... it could move closer to the West, spoiling Putin's dream of greater regional and world influence.
That's a competition the U.S. and its European allies must win.