Russia on Edge
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|Julian Pecquet||February 8th 2014|
The Olympic Games, created to bring countries together around sports, appear to be having the opposite effect on U.S.-Russia relations.
Rising animosity between the former Cold War powers was on full display Friday when Russia chose a former figure skater who tweeted out a racially charged picture of President Obama for the symbolic lighting of the Olympic cauldron.
That came just a day after the world found out that a personal phone call between State Department official Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Kiev where she can be heard saying “F—k the EU” had been intercepted and leaked on You Tube.
The Obama administration immediately pointed the finger at Moscow, which did little to signal a denial over an incident that embarrassed Washington.
To be sure, there are hard feelings in Russia toward the U.S. and the Obama administration, too.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped hosting the first Games since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which the U.S. boycotted, would showcase a “new Russia” emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union as he enters his 15th year in power.
Instead the U.S. and its western allies have consistently painted the picture of a corrupt autocracy.
The media's focus on the persecution of gays in Russia, terrorism and Russia's lackluster infrastructure – many hotels don't have potable water even though the games are estimated to have cost more than $50 billion, the most ever – have further infuriated the Kremlin.
“I understand how the press here works. They need hot issues in order to be read, to have high circulation,” Sergey Kislyak, Putin's envoy to Washington, told The Washington Diplomat last month. “This is not only an American phenomenon. But I start every working day reading about Russia from the news clips my staff prepares, and I would say it’s not the most encouraging reading.”
Tellingly, the Russian embassy has kept a low-profile in the run-up to the Games, opting for a private viewing party at Kislyak's residence on Friday, the Washington Post pointed out this week.
By contrast, the London Olympics two years ago were an occasion for an “Embassy Olympics” competition between teams from the State Department and embassies around town and a “Let's Move” rally with first lady Michelle Obama, who led the U.S. delegation to London.
This year, in contrast, the delegation includes former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, retiring Ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.
Vice President Biden led the U.S. delegation to the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
Even China, despite lingering tensions over trade and human rights, got more love from the Americans when they hosted the summer Games in Beijing six years ago: President George W. Bush sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to represent the U.S.
It’s not just Obama giving Russia the cold shoulder.
U.S. lawmakers were among the first to make Sochi a focal point of their criticism – and they haven't stopped piling on.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told online video NowThis News this week that the International Olympic Committee made a “very bad choice” letting Russia host the games because of the country's record on gay rights.
“It's like going into ancient history. The whole world has moved to a different place,” Pelosi said. “That this should even be an issue speaks to the inappropriateness of Russia being the site for the Winter Olympics.”
And the top Democrat on the House intelligence panel, Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), told CNN on Thursday that he was concerned that President Vladimir Putin's “ego” could endanger U.S and other athletes and visitors to the games.
Meanwhile, the State Department has advised the U.S. Olympic team not to wear its flashy Team USA outfits outside official Olympic venues, for their own safety.
Gay rights has been the biggest point of tensions.
The U.S. delegation to the opening ceremonies included two openly gay athletes, a move Obama said was intended to send a message.
“There is no doubt we wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Obama told NBC News on Thursday. “And one of the wonderful things about the Olympics is that you are judged by your merit.”
But it’s not just gay rights that is dividing the two governments.
National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden remains in Russia, which granted him temporary asylum last year.
His Moscow residency is a lingering embarrassment to the Obama administration, and U.S. intelligence officials have openly worried Russia is influencing him.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told The Hill back in July that the U.S. should consider boycotting the Sochi Games because of Snowden.
The two countries also are fighting over how to handle Iran’s nuclear program and over what to do with Syria, a close ally of Russia. The crisis in Ukraine, where protesters are seeking to oust pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, is only adding to the tensions.
Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have tried to publicly signal a thaw.
Obama denied having an “icy” relationship with Putin in this week's interview.
And Kerry, who works closely with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Iran and Syria, has sought to preserve those ties despite the escalating rhetoric.
Kerry sought to strike a diplomatic tone in an interview with Comcast, sidestepping a question about the “political climate” around the games and choosing instead to praise the security preparations in Sochi.
“There’s huge security, there’s been an enormous amount of preparation,” Kerry said. “I believe huge efforts have been made, the security is strong, and I would say to anybody who asked me, 'Should I go?' I’d say: 'Yeah, and have a great time'.”
Julian Pecquet writes for TheHill.com, from where this article is adapted.