Russia in 2014: Sochi key to Putin legacy
December 17th, 2013
01:29 PM ET

Russia in 2014: Sochi key to Putin legacy

By Andrew C. Kuchins, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew C. Kuchins is a senior fellow and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. The views expressed are his own. This is the second in the '14 in 2014' series, looking at what the year ahead holds for key countries.

The eyes of the world will be trained on Russia when the Sochi Winter Olympics open on February 7. The Olympic Games have already attracted tremendous controversy over concerns about discriminating Russian LGBT legislation and massive corruption in preparing the games (which at an estimated cost of more than $50 billion are already the most expensive in history). In addition, there are political and security concerns about the site itself, which borders Georgian sovereign territory of Abkhazia, which Russia has recognized as independent since its five-day war with Georgia in 2008, and also borders the volatile North Caucasian republics of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin views the Games as reflecting Russia’s return as a great power since he first took office on December 31, 1999. But although he could possibly remain Russian leader for another ten years, until 2024, it is hard not to look at these Olympics in terms of his legacy.

In Putin’s view, the Russian economy has recovered under his tenure, political stability has returned, and with it growing international respect for Russian power. In the view of his political opponents, however, Putin has been the lucky beneficiary of a rising and still high oil price that has been the principal driver of Russia’s economic rise. Instead of focusing on structural economic reforms to improve the investment environment and broaden the foundation for sustainable economic growth, he has overseen Russia’s ossification into a highly centralized kleptocracy focused on enriching himself and his cronies, but increasingly incapable of effectively governing the country. As for Russia’s great power status, ultimately this will be compromised by mounting economic, demographic, and social problems coupled with a self-defeating policy of intimidation and economic coercion towards its neighbors.

More from GPS: How Russia fears being forgotten

Never in recent memory has an Olympic Games seemed to have so much riding on them for the leader of the host country. A major terrorist attack, for example, would shatter any illusions about Putin’s historic mission to stabilize the North Caucasus after the humiliating first Chechen war in the 1990s, while any serious glitch with the recently built and outrageously expensive infrastructure will cast a dark shadow over Russia’s already rickety reputation for governance and effective management. And then there is the danger of an over-reaction to any potential critical demonstration to Russian human rights deficiencies, i.e. towards the LGBT community.

Still, although there is so much potential for these Games going bad, let’s assume they go well for the benefit of the athletes, spectators, and international sport at large. What can we expect from Russia in 2014?

First, we can assume continued stagnant economic growth of around 2 percent even with the oil price remaining in the neighborhood of $100. In fact, earlier this fall, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry predicted 2-2.5 percent growth for Russia to 2030 even under conditions of relatively high oil prices. This means Russia is underperforming the global outlook for growth by at least 1 percent. The consensus in the Russian economic community is that reforms to improve governance, increase transparency, and improve the investment environment can return Russia to 4-5 percent growth – more appropriate for an economy at its stage of development. Unfortunately the consensus in the political community is that Putin is reluctant to take these measures because they could threaten his political base. If the ineffectual Dmitri Medvedev is replaced by someone like Andrei Kudrin or German Gref – essentially a figure with more credibility as an economic reformer – we could see serious change.

With parliamentary elections not scheduled until 2016, and presidential elections until 2018, and with no clear opposition leader or even well-organized opposition, it is difficult to expect dramatic developments on the political front. Yes, the failure of Ukrainian President Yanukovych to manage the growing mobilization of opposition next door could strike a blow to Putin’s authority. But by itself this would not likely lead to serious political instability in Russia. For that we would probably have to see a series of events such as regime change in Ukraine followed by a failed Sochi Olympics accompanied by dramatic fall in the oil price to below $60. Certainly, unexpected things can happen (and they often do in Russia), but I wouldn’t assume that Vladimir Putin is leaving power anytime soon.

Like many political leaders facing very difficult domestic challenges and choices, we should expect Putin and his highly capable foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, to attempt to build on recent success in foreign policy. The major coup for Russia in 2013 was the Syrian chemical weapons disarmament initiative that helped prevent a U.S. military strike, a move that brought at least tacit U.S. acknowledgement of the authority of the Bashar Al-Assad regime and contributed to a more positive environment for pursuit of nuclear talks with Iran. These events have also improved the climate in U.S-Russia relations after nearly two years of near free-fall.

If a complete breakthrough with Iran is achieved in 2014 and/or a broader peace and reconciliation process in Syria takes place (it’s not clear which event is more unlikely), this will be very much down to the efforts of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. These would still likely not be transformative events for the U.S.-Russian relationship, but they would certainly create a shift in momentum.

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Topics: 14 in 2014 • Human Rights • Russia • Sports

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soundoff (63 Responses)
  1. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    Russians worried about their country's being forgotten can relax, as the glory that existed there before 1917 will always live in memory.

    December 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
    • Ted

      Russian glory comes in cycles, and Russia is on the "upswing" now due to soft dictatorship and high oil prices, plus gas and a ton of other resources it is rich with. But when Putin leaves, in 25 years no less, and the world gets of oil addiction, Russia will be in a turmoil again. Smart Russians understand all that, that why they took the money out while they could.

      December 19, 2013 at 1:27 am | Reply
      • Rick

        Putin took power out of the hands of the oil barons and put it back into the government where it belonged. The USA has suffered under oil barons for decades.

        December 19, 2013 at 3:04 am |
      • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

        Nations aways have barons, whether they receive the accolade or not. Barons can be in the government as easily as they can be in oil, gold, usury, or religion.
        Killing off the barons leads to national decline unless new barons with good brains replace the old ones to keep the water running.

        December 19, 2013 at 5:53 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        It's a pity that Dmitri Medvedev is so weak. While he was president, he really wanted to encourage foreign investors to help develop the service sector in Russia, as a way to diversify its economy. Judicial reforms, aimed at improving the rule of law was on his mind. Yet he couldn't have his dream realised.

        December 19, 2013 at 7:42 am |
      • Maria

        Hahaha all the Russians that took money out while they could, CANT USE IT ANYMORE!!! Thief s that ruined Russian potency!
        Russia is rich in natural resources and rather then envying us, every country should use their resources too!

        December 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
  2. Jerry Falwell

    Now watch a lot of ignorant, brainless fools blog in here to bash Vladimir Putin. These people never cease to amaze me as they continue to openly display their disgusting ignorance over Russia, China and Vietnam. Have these people absolutely no shame at all?

    December 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      Thank you!

      December 18, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
    • 100niek

      I'll make it simple for you: Putin is a bad human being, period. Based on the history, good news for Russia is bad news for civilized world. Just give me a ONE example when Russia's behavior has been appreciated by its neighbors (exclude China please). Shame on everyone who criticize Putin? Hmm... maybe you should try it on yourself...

      December 19, 2013 at 9:35 am | Reply
      • Andrey

        Putin is bad because he makes you sissies look bad: even without trying. Russia is bad for you: like China is bad, because you are not moving forward any more, you are stuck, and they are not! Whatever made you who you are is bad now: you are building the new bright future when all the people are equal, and everything is re-distributed fairly! Yes, you are walking the road to Socialism and you meet China and Russia going in the opposite direction: they just can't be right! They must be evil if they do not want to build the Communism that you are building! So they either turn around and walk with you, or they should be destroyed: there is nothing else! Goood luck Commies:! Russia has defeated Hitler, it can handle your hate: particularly if it has China to build relations with! And India, and Brazil, and Middle East countries... Yeah, and Ukraine too! So cry baby, cry, gnash your teeth!

        December 19, 2013 at 9:56 am |
    • Dmitry

      No, they have no shame.

      December 26, 2013 at 12:12 am | Reply
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    December 17, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Although Putin is authoritarian, he is also a narcissist and cares about what other heads of state think of him.Ten days ago, Germany's president, Joachim Gauck was first major political figure to boycott the Sochi Winter Games, in response to Russia's rights violations and harassment of opposition.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:23 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      You call German President a major political figure? So how many people know his name outside Germany? What the heck: how many people in Germany know his name?
      Jimmi Carter boycotted 1980 Olympic games in Moscow. Yeah, it did US much good then! Since then boycotting Olympic games is sort of a symbol of Cold War: I think we witness now how the West starts this game all over again! After all, it's not Russia that violates Olympic games charter by bringing politics in it, is it! So we can see who actually starts another round of the Cold War: and as usual it takes a pawn to make the first move! So guess who is the pawn!

      December 18, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Well said, Andrey. Thank you. We should have boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Instead, we should have talked the Russians out of coming to the aid of the then tottering government of the Afghan Communists in 1979 and get that government to surrender to the Mujeheddin as a face saving way out.

        December 18, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Sorry Andrey, for the misprint above. I meant to say that we never should have boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, not the other way around. I simply left out the word "never" above.

        December 18, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
      • BZ

        Spirit of the olympic games is to have nations come together. Instead, the idiots making decisions in the US once again chose to use it as a political platform-this time about gays. Not that many of us approve of the way Russia handles gays, but this is the wrong format to make light of it.
        Kind of reminds you of how Jimmy Carter & the US boycotted olympics in Russia in 1980 over Afghan invasion by Russia. Now look who is occupying Afghanistan-and it's not Russia. Too bad Russia didn't tell us we should be banned next year for currently occupying Afghanistan.

        December 19, 2013 at 1:59 am |
      • Greg Keener

        Great post, BZ. I couldn't agree more! What hypocrites we Americans seem to be!

        December 19, 2013 at 8:51 am |
    • Brandon

      Who the heck is Joachim Gauck???

      December 18, 2013 at 1:05 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Nobody important, Brandon. Just another puppet in Angie Merkel's cabinet representing the aspirations of right-wing thugs in Washington. It's sad to see a country as great as Germany follow such ignoble policies as it does today, being subservient to Washington D.C.!.

        December 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
  5. j. von hettlingen

    A few days ago, Putin approved a sweeping amnesty which sees the release of high-profile prisoners like members of the Pus sy Riot and the Greenpeace.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:24 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      Right, he must have let thousands go, to have that few out: to please Western Russophobes! Do you think he just gone mad: like decided to try to empty a sea with a bucket? There is no pleasing to Russia haters: he should give up even before he starts trying (not that he ever had such a delusion – it did not show)!

      December 18, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Thank you, Andrey. Again, you nailed it good!

        December 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Ralph_in_FL

      I read on another news site that it could take up to six months for people to actually be released under that amnesty. By then, the Sochi Olympics will be over. Maybe, after the Olympics is over, the Duma will repeal the amnesty the same way they passed it, by a unanimous vote.

      December 18, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Reply
  6. il

    Zakaria should not have gone to Harvard for his scholarship. We would not have this paltry articles now.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:43 am | Reply
  7. Andrey

    That Olympic games crap is well over-played. It's like with that 1980 Moscow games: done, gone and forgotten! Who cares!

    December 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      The childish temper tantrum of the USA, avoiding the 1980 Olympic Games was ridiculous. Even worse the USA was funding islamic terrorism in Afghanistan at the time.

      December 19, 2013 at 3:03 am | Reply
  8. Bill

    You want to know how well Russia is doing? Compare it to China.

    December 18, 2013 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  9. zappo15

    Putin Rasputin. All he needs is abeard

    December 18, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  10. Rosslaw

    Putin makes all the sense in the world when one understands that he leads through intimidation and murder a failed third world mafia state. The Ukraine's Yanukovych does not just face the certainty that if the Ukraine tries to act like an independent country that Russia will cut off its natural gas, but also the high likelihood that he will not survive a confrontation with Putin. Just think of the Gambino crime family with a taste for borscht instead of lasagne.

    December 18, 2013 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • ES

      They just gave Ukraine 15 billion dollars. Please, reject them . I'd much rather have them spent on Russian people.
      I can't stand people hating Russia but then taking its money, no problem.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • Maryana

        Ukrainians already asked him to give it back, he won't listen

        December 18, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
      • olaf

        use your own rubles and kopeks then

        December 18, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  11. Jesse

    Russia and corruption are synonymous, it's how business is done there. What made anyone think it would be any different?

    December 18, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Except the complaint seems to be not over corruption but gay rights. Most people could care less.

      December 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  12. Jamie Estevez

    All I have to say is God bless Holy Orthodox Russia! Slava Russia!

    December 18, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  13. RC

    Well President Putin could deny access to his country. O is trying to flex his muscles after President Putin smacked him down on Iran.

    December 18, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply
    • DustyOnes

      So true....Putin should arrest all the gays and put them in a Siberian Prison until Obama comes back over and apologizes again.

      December 18, 2013 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • frankiesweep

      Obama said he'd get him back by sending gays! that' will teach them!

      December 18, 2013 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  14. frankiesweep

    No gays in Sochi sounds like heaven.

    December 18, 2013 at 7:46 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      So much for the USA diving team!

      December 19, 2013 at 3:01 am | Reply
      • banasy©

        In the Winter Olympics?

        December 19, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  15. Edward Snowedus

    Putin's Legacy will live on for decades – the time the MILLIONS of Syrian refugees relocating in Lebanon, Turkey etc, so far zero in Britain. 4.5 million expected total one year from now.

    The blame is on warmonger Putin for blocking UN intervention, and instead shipping $Billions in arms to Assad.
    The 200,000 DEAD by that time next year, with a sickening number being executed children, many by Assad's pals the the brutal Shabiha.

    Money put up by Russian for the staggering expense of those refugees, and the millons in wartorn Syrian – an insulting amount, considering the UN requested $11 BILLION for 2013 and 2014.

    December 18, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      The USA, israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the EU are funding islamic terrorism in Syria, including the Syrian Al-Qaeda known as the Jabhat-Al-Nusra Brigades, and 50+ other terror groups.

      December 19, 2013 at 3:00 am | Reply
    • Greg Keener

      Thank you, Edward Snowedus. Putin a "warmonger"? Somehow, I don't think so! Just look at who's ordering the obscene butchery of thousands of people in Afghanistan and Pakistan day after day with those heinous drones of ours! Moreover, who wanted to slaughter more Syrians last summer by attacking it? Then tell me who the real warmonger is!

      December 19, 2013 at 8:56 am | Reply
  16. cnn

    Russia should be worried there climb to this point in there economy has been tough plus it's the winter games lay off a little the world unites for these types of events. also it could start a border dispute.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  17. sandvichmancer

    "Legacy" implies he has any intention of leaving office. He'll die thinking he's Czar by a different name, and all the toadies who cozy up to him will backstab in a circle until new blood get into office.
    That's the only way that Russia will become the democracy it's supposed to be.

    December 18, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      So why do you say "supposed to be"? Russian people give no crap about your suppositions! Clean your own cesspool first: I doubt you can! And remember you will be the second world's biggest economy by 2016: start adjusting to it now so it does not come as a shock!

      December 19, 2013 at 12:57 am | Reply
  18. Maimonida

    Putin is going to have Yanukovich and Lukashenko as his dignitary guests. I do not know why Obama even bothered to send Janet Napolitano. I would pick a dozen of drug addicts from under a bridge and send them there. It is all Putin deserves. By the way Sochi is a tropical city. Having all cold zone and infrastructure at northern part of country it looks quite s tupid to make games under palms.

    December 19, 2013 at 12:25 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      You can keep your drug addicts and Napolitano power junkie too: nobody will miss you there! Really! Do not waste your time on Olympic games, have a war or two instead: that's where the real money are!

      December 19, 2013 at 12:50 am | Reply
  19. Andrey

    This topic if packed with CNN resident Russophobes and Israeli trolls. Keep barking guys, keep barking! You have a good reason to be all upset and not in the mood: it's all not well for you since Putin took over in Russia! And not that much good at home either: it's all sort of downhill, just one political disaster after another! Cry baby, cry!

    December 19, 2013 at 12:44 am | Reply
    • Lolol

      That's some tough talk, Ivan. I wonder if you can back it up with your collapsing demographics and failing petro economy. Russia's actions over the past couple years remind me of a violently spasming man that know's he's about to kick the bucket. It's typical for dying great powers to resort to aggressive flailing abroad to mask their weakness at home. Just try not to damage up the yard too much this time, it was a godawful mess to clean up last time you crashed and burned.

      December 20, 2013 at 1:40 am | Reply
  20. Rick

    What a hack article. the Olympics is important to ANY leader of a country that hosts it!

    December 19, 2013 at 2:58 am | Reply
  21. Oprichnik

    Mr. Kuchins, who is Andrei Kudrin? I presume you meant ALEXEI Kudrin, the former finance minister. Much of the credit that Putin has claimed for bringing stability to the Russian economy should go to Kudrin instead. But Kudrin was relieved of his duties after expressing disagreement with Putin's budget priorities. He insists that he harbors no ill will against Putin for being sacked, but human nature being what it is, I don't see what would compel Kudrin to rejoin the government after the way he was treated by Putin.

    December 20, 2013 at 8:33 am | Reply
  22. Politico05

    I find the recent events in Russia intriguing and concerning on many levels. Behavior on the public stage thtas appears spontaneously erratic. This off cuff remark to resolve the Syrian chemical weaapons crisis, his interactoin wiht Obama at the Euro Eco summit this summmmer- in the mdst of Snowden. Still, Barrrack RSVP on Sochi. Nyet. Putin releases an arch rival, a pardon to be preecise. He's vulnaerable for many reasons. Most signifincant to me is his mistake in timing.

    December 20, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Reply
  23. steven

    Putin zhil, Putin zhiv, Putin budyet zhit.

    December 21, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Reply

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