Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


Russia, Gays, Vodka and Foreign Policy

President Putin is masterful at intermingling nationalism and patriotism with domestic and foreign policy. He seems to have perfected his art with the passage of the recent anti-gay laws in Russia, prompting outrageous attacks on gay Russians. Gays all over the world have expressed their outrage at the treatment of gay Russians and have taken matters into their own hands by refusing to consume Russian vodka in gay bars. There is also a chorus of calls from the American gay community, and their supporters, to boycott next year’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

None of this appears to matter to Mr. Putin, who knows the majority of Russians actually support the new laws, and, apparently, the treatment of gay people in Russia. For that reason, there is little reason to believe that Mr. Putin will rescind the law for the Winter Games — even though Adolph Hitler, who had even more absolutist anti-gay laws in place at the time — rescinded those laws when the Games were held in Berlin in 1936.

When the U.S. refused to participate in the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow in response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, the absence of American athletes was minimized by the Kremlin and characterized as a symbolic slap. Some analysts predicted at the time that Russia would retaliate by boycotting the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, but Moscow took part in those deliberations.

Whatever decision the U.S. Olympic Committee makes regarding the Sochi Games, Washington’s cancellation of the planned summit next month between Presidents Obama and Putin has delivered the message that business as usual will not continue — at least in the near term.

Having attempted to ‘reset the reset’ for bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia, President Obama has come to realize that there is little more he can do as long as Mr. Putin continues to be intransigent toward American overtures and actively works against U.S. foreign policy objectives in Iran and Syria. Mr. Putin is unlikely to depart from a diplomatic pattern established by Brezhnev: show magnanimity in the face of perceived American rudeness and behave in the Olympic spotlight like the gracious host and superpower Russia is.

Mr. Putin’s response to the international outrage over gays in Russia is consistent with his general approach to foreign policy. Under his leadership, Russia has struck a balance between being perceived as independent, non-aligned or anti-western on one hand, while promoting Russian interests and attempting to restore the glory of Russia at the zenith of its power on the other. In fairness, to date Mr. Putin has been quite successful doing this, having applied pressure when able and often taking issues right up to the line, without crossing it.

Whether in missile defense, supplying Iranian nuclear reactors, or providing arms to Syria, Putin has pursued Russian objectives only up to the point where an irrevocable negative response will be triggered. Even in the case of Edward Snowden, the granting of ‘temporary’ asylum as long as Mr. Snowden refrains from harming America (any further), essentially defanged the American response. There is little reason to expect that Mr. Putin will change his tune going forward, particularly given that his approach has been so successful. But Moscow is highly sensitive with regard to its international image and national dignity. In spite of appearances, Mr. Putin wants to be seen as the good guy, and indeed, to many, he is.

Regrettably, his high testosterone approach to governing has had terribly negative consequences for many Russians and has set Russia on a path of inevitable confrontation with the West. There is a fine line between ensuring a nation’s needs are met and alienating important players on the international chessboard. Mr. Putin has come dangerously close to crossing that line. If he is not careful, that day will soon come.