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What Russia’s Olympic ban means for Vladimir Putin

- June 20, 2016

Russia is the first country in the history of the Olympics to have an entire team — track and field —banned from participating in the Games because of doping. Individual athletes, especially those who have trained for years outside Russia, may be able to argue their way back in. But senior officials from the International Olympics Committee have made it clear that they will not overturn the team ban announced by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF, the body responsible for worldwide track and field oversight).

The ban will have little direct effect on the rule or popularity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example in the upcoming parliamentary elections this September. Russian officials are already spinning this as just one more example of the West unfairly beating up on the Russian state for the actions of rogue individuals. Russian media sources are also practicing the “what-about-ism” for which they are famous, highlighting corruption elsewhere in Olympic sports and arguing that Russia is not unique. (Of course what makes Russia unique is the overwhelming evidence provided by the World Anti-Doping Agency that Russian state authorities—including the FSB, the domestic intelligence organization that took over from the Soviet KGB—have continued to willfully abet cheating, even after the first report was filed against them six months ago.)  Putin’s control of the media, as well as the Russian public’s ho-hum attitude toward corruption (as evidenced by its non-reaction to the recent Panama Papers revelations), means that short-term repercussions will be minimal for the regime.

However, in a broader sense this may have consequences. It is the first real action by the outside world that has brought Putin’s two vital leadership goals into conflict with each other.

Putin’s first major goal is to go down in history as the man who made Russia great again after three humiliating setbacks. The first was the collapse of the Warsaw Pact alliance and then of the Soviet Union itself. The second was the expansion of NATO and the ability of the United States to launch air strikes and wars without Russia’s UN Security Council approval. The third was the chaotic capitalism and mafia-style violence that embarrassed Russia in the 1990s. As Deborah Welch Larson and Alexei Shevchenko have argued, Putin’s drive to restore Russia’s great power status is the simplest (and hence probably the best) explanation for his actions in Ukraine, Syria, the Arctic and elsewhere.

Putin’s second major goal is to hold on to power for as long as possible, using the informal network of connections that secure his place at the top. Those networks in turn depend on corrupt bargains to keep them going. As Alena V. Ledevena shows, the Russian system today is based on circles of mutual backscratching and extortion (or what is known in Russian as the krugovaya porukha). Each actor in the circle knows that his or her livelihood hinges on everyone else’s silence about past or continuing illegal activities. Once the beans start getting spilled, the whole circle risks falling apart, since everyone who is outed for bad behavior has an incentive to take someone else down with them.

There is evidence that Russian athletes were forced to dope and then pay officials to cover it up in order to be included on Russian teams, providing levers for mutual incrimination. At least one Russian runner, Liliya Shobukhova, winner of the 2010 London Marathon, was reported to have given 450,000 Euros to “senior Russian officials” to mask her doping, and to have later accepted a partial “refund” in exchange for accepting an IAFF suspension. Her case involved international IAAF officials too. These weren’t just Russians, but those banned for life from the IAAF as a result included IAAF treasurer (and former president of the Russian branch) Valentin Balakhnichev, and Alexei Melnikov, a senior Russian coach. French authorities then seized 1.8 million Euros that Balakhnichev held in a Monaco bank account.

The Western sanctions following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine may have been based on the hope of making Putin’s krugovaya porukha crack, but that didn’t happen. Putin rejiggered some financing, gained a useful outside whipping boy (the West) to blame for his regime’s own structural economic mistakes, and convinced his cronies to wait for Western unity to crack. While the sanctions contributed to some part of Russia’s current economic malaise, and may have prevented even further Russian military actions in Ukraine, they have not threatened Putin’s hold on power.

In contrast, the Olympic ban might make the first real chink in the regime’s armor — not because of its surface-level reputational effects, but because it puts Putin’s two chief goals at odds. He will not want to go down in history as the man who squandered the Soviet Union’s magnificent Olympic legacy by tolerating state corruption. There are already signs that other Russian sports, like swimming, may be next in the international crosshairs. But if Putin starts cleaning up corruption in Russia’s Sports Ministry, he will break an important krugovaya porukha and directly threaten some core regime members (including FSB officers).

Even more important, the circles of corruption in Russia are enormously complex and overlapping, if the evidence provided by anti-corruption crusader Alekei Navalny and the Panama Papers are correct. Businesses link across sectors, real estate purchases link across geography and everything links across generations of family members who are part-owners of one thing or another, hiding their identities behind shell companies. This makes it very unlikely that corruption in sports is separable from corruption elsewhere at the heights of the Russian regime. If the sports krugovaya porukha starts to crumble, it will likely pull other circles with it.

So what will Putin do? It will be hard to know what is happening right away, as the effects of any shake-up may be very long in coming and difficult to parse. The best evidence that circles are pulling apart circles will be if there is a sudden expansion of high-level anti-corruption trials in Russia. But one thing is clear: Putin will not be able to restore Russia’s Olympic luster while maintaining the underpinnings of the regime as we now know it.

Kimberly Marten is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University.