Hosting the Olympic Games is a pain in the ass and costs a fortune. Most hosts lose money on the deal, and given Sochi's record-setting $51 billion price tag, this year should prove no exception. The reason countries work so hard at getting the Olympics is that it is one of the few legitimate ways to attract a lot of (in theory) positive attention to your country.
This year, NBC is paying more than three quarters of a billion dollars for the privilege of airing more than 500 hours of the Olympics, and is no doubt dedicated to showing the world how very wonderful Sochi is. Or at least to talking about it in the background while young, fit, athletic people run around and do their thing in skin-tight spandex for the glory and entertainment of all.
But if Russia wants positive attention, it isn't really clear why the country chose Sochi. After all, it's a summer resort town with a subtropical (at least by Russian standards) climate. It has palm trees. Granted, Sochi is close to some ski resorts, but even so, Russia has had to spend a fortune on making new snow. In case that's not enough, they've collected snow with plans to distribute it via tiny avalanches. Fully one fifth of Russia lies north of the Arctic Circle, so did the Kremlin — or more specifically, Vladimir Putin — go to such great lengths to host the Winter Olympics at a beach resort?
As far as Putin is concerned, the fall of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical tragedy" of the 20th Century. If Americans think of the collapse of the USSR at all, they think of it as the end of the true threat of communism, without much regard to what it meant for Russia. Yet for many Russians, including Putin (who spent a career in the KGB), the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn't about communism. It was about watching as Russia was turned from superpower to wreck.
In 1991, the Soviet Union broke up into what are now 15 different countries. Russia is the largest, but from Moscow's perspective, the fall of the Soviet Union meant that they lost almost a quarter of their land — the equivalent of America losing everything in the continental US west of the Rockies — along with massive amounts of population, influence, and money. Worse, it wasn't just that a quarter of the country up and left; the collapse destroyed the economy, gutted the military, crippled the space program, and disrupted civil society.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Caucasus, home to Sochi, and the place where Russia smashes up against the Middle East. The Caucasus is a mountainous mix of more than 50 different ethnic groups, at least a half dozen religions, and an untold number of dialects and languages. Maps of the area's ethnicities, languages, and religions look like a Jackson Pollock painting, each blob named something like "Kabardino-Balkaria" or "Tabasaranski Raion." Seemingly every ethnic group breaks down into smaller and more obscure groups that few people have even heard of — and further investigation shows half of those groups don't even live in the region anymore.
Figuring out the history of the place is further complicated because there's never just one War of Whatever, or a single Battle of Place. It's always the Fourth Battle of Place in the Second Whatever Uprising or Third War of the Thing. The Caucasus region is an indecipherable mess of clans, tribes, and feuds, and it has been that way for thousands of years. Moscow has been fighting the locals here long before the Soviet Union was even a glimmer in Lenin's eye. So the breakup of the Soviet Union was something of a green light for this region to return to its traditional, chaotic mode.
In the early 1990s, Russian Islamists tried to secede from Russia to form the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. That was promptly followed by a brutal civil war in which the Chechens fought Russia to a standstill. For patriotic Russians, this was a crushing embarrassment. Five years earlier, the Soviet Union had made the world tremble before it's mighty Red Army, but now that same Red Army couldn't stop a bunch of ragtag Caucasus yokels from breaking off into their own country.
During roughly the same time, Vladimir Putin rose from relative political obscurity with the goal of restoring Russia to its "rightful" position in the world. One of the first things that this mission involved was settling scores with Chechnya. The Second Chechen War managed to be even uglier and more brutal than the first. By the time the major fighting concluded in 2000, the Chechen capital Grozny had earned the title of "most destroyed city on earth" from the United Nations. After all the bombing and shelling of Chechnya had ceased, Putin's Russia won. The Chechens were beaten, and Russia had control over all its territories.
But flattening Chechnya wasn't enough to restore Russia to that "rightful" place in the world. As the world has seen in military interventions since 9/11, it's not simply enough to go break things. A real, genuine world power destroys first, then attempts to rebuild. So Putin's Russia spent a ton of money rebuilding Grozny and making it a bright, shining, modern metropolis.
So what does this all have to do with Sochi? Why not just host the Olympics in Grozny? For starters, the Chechens, Ingushetians, Dagestanis, and other quarreling folk in and around Grozny aren't necessarily convinced they're finished fighting: The region has been home to a low-level insurgency since the end of all major combat.
Sochi is on the other side of the Caucasus. In bringing the world's attention to Sochi and pouring huge amounts of money into making the city a showcase, Putin essentially is declaring that he has won the Caucasus. Imagine if instead of putting up a "Mission Accomplished" banner, George W. Bush proved that the US had won in Iraq by holding the Super Bowl in neighboring Kuwait.
Putin has personally guaranteed the safety of the Olympics because it is very much his pet project, and if the Games are a success, he'll have validation for his other pet project: returning Russia to autocratic rule under a strong, central figure not entirely unlike the Tsars. But Islamist Chechens and their allies have an ax to grind about Russian brutality, and what they perceive as the occupation of Chechen lands, so they may attempt to attack the Games. And so, while Putin may have won the Caucasus, it remains to be seen whether he'll win the Olympics.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan