Russia's Olympic ban strengthens Putin's reelection hand

Key Points
  • Putin declared his intention to run for a fourth presidential term on Wednesday
  • Opinion polls show he is already a shoo-in to win
  • Ban on Russia at the Winter Olympics is likely to make support for him even stronger
Vladimir Putin
Alexei Druzhinin | Sputnik | Kremlin | Reuters

Opinion polls show Vladimir Putin is already a shoo-in to win a fourth presidential term. But a ban on Russia taking part in the Winter Olympics is likely to make support for him even stronger, by uniting voters around his message: The world is against us.

Putin, who has dominated Russia's political landscape for the last 17 years, declared Wednesday that .

With ties between the Kremlin and the West at their lowest point for years, the International Olympic Committee's decision to bar Russia from the 2018 Pyeongchang Games over doping is seen in Moscow as a humiliating and politically tinged act.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the upper house of parliament's foreign affairs committee, was among the first to cast the move as part of a dark Western plot against his country, which sees sport as a barometer of geopolitical clout.

"There can be no doubt that this is part of the West's overall policy of holding Russia back," Kosachyov wrote on social media. "They are targeting our national honor ... our reputation ... and our interests. They (the West) bought out the traitors ... and orchestrated media hysteria."

The IOC ruling is also seen by many in Russia as a personal affront to , who was re-elected president in 2012 after spending four years as prime minister because the constitution barred him from a third consecutive term as head of state.

The sport-loving leader cast his hosting of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, at which the IOC says there was "unprecedented systematic manipulation" of the anti-doping system, as a symbol of RussiaΓÇÖs success under his rule.

But Putin has often extracted political benefit from crises, and turned international setbacks into domestic triumphs, by accusing the West of gunning for Russia and using this to inspire Russians to unite.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Getty Images | Alexey Nikolsky | AFP

"Outside pressure on Russia, understood as politically-motivated and orchestrated from the U.S., leads to more national cohesion," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Wednesday.

"Various sanctions are being turned into instruments of nation-building."

Putin's popularity, supported by state television, is already high. Opinion polls regularly give him an approval rating of around 80 percent.

But casting the IOC ban as a dastardly Western plot to hurt Russia, something he did when Russian athletes were banned from last year's Summer Olympics in Rio over doping, could help him mobilize the electorate.

Public anger over the IOC move could help Putin overcome signs of voter apathy and ensure a high turnout which, in the tightly controlled limits of the Russian political system, is seen as conferring legitimacy.

There were early signs that fury over the IOC's decision was duly stirring patriotic fervor.

"Russia is a superpower," Alexander Kudrashov, a member of the Russian Military Historical Society, told Reuters on Moscow's Red Square after the IOC ruling.

Without Russia, he said, the Olympics would not be valid. He linked the decision to a Western anti-Russian campaign which many Russians believe took hold after Russia annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

"Choosing between the people in Crimea, who wept when the Russian flag was run up and who were doomed to genocide, and sportspeople taking first place on the podium, I choose the people who couldn't defend themselves," Kudrashov said.

'We soak it up and survive'

Blaming the West is an approach the Kremlin has often used before when faced with international allegations of wrongdoing -- over CrimeaΓÇÖs annexation, the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine in July 2014 and charges of meddling in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists rebelled against rule from Kiev after Crimea was annexed.

The tactic taps into RussiansΓÇÖ patriotism and makes Putin almost bullet-proof when it comes to scandal. The 65-year-old former KGB agent is regarded by many voters as a tsar-like father-of-the-nation figure who has brought their country back from the brink of collapse.

When at the start of the year it seemed there was a window to repair relations with the West after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who said he wanted better ties, the narrative of Russia versus the world was muted.

But when it became clear that U.S. allegations of Russian meddling in Trump's election precluded any rapprochement, Putin doubled down on the narrative. In October, he launched a stinging critique of U.S. policy, listing what he called the biggest betrayals in U.S.-Russia relations.

Sources close to the Russian government say the IOC ban, along with continued Western sanctions over Ukraine and the prospect of new sanctions, will help the authorities rally voters around the banner of national unity which Putin embodies.

"Outside pressure just makes us stronger," said one such source who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, set the tone on social media in comments that found ready support from many Russians.