Don’t Ignore Russia

 

At the end of my last blog, I mentioned that Russia’s doping scandals have caught the world’s attention, if only for a moment (and have probably now been forgotten since the Olympics are concluded). However, as I implied earlier, Russia is not a country that should be ignored, although, given the problems that exist at home, it is easy to do. For those who keep track of the news, the Russian elections were recently held, and Vladimir Putin won by an enormous margin over his few competitors.

Although Putin and Russia might not seem to be the biggest story, especially given the headline-generating power of North Korea and Kim Jong-Un, it seems to me, as I look at sources, that overall, Russia is a much greater threat. They have significantly greater military and economic power and have already demonstrated a willingness, under Putin, to expand their power outside their borders (recall the annexation of Ukraine). But let’s briefly discuss the election and what it could mean for the future of Russia and Russia’s relations with the world.

First, there have been hundreds of accusations of voter fraud leveled against the Russian government during this election including everything from large quantities of ballots being forced into boxes by election officials to ballots being found in the boxes before voting had even begun. Will this hurt Putin’s reputation? In Russia, this is unlikely. If we neglect the accusations of voting fraud and the impact they could have had on the election, the most accurate calculations state that Putin won the election with a massive 76% of the popular vote. Despite the importance of the story of tampering with the election results, it is doubtful that it changed the outcome of the election. Putin is undeniably popular in Russia, and even without the results being effected, would most likely have won by a large margin. Having covered the basics of the election, what effects could Putin’s re-election have on Russia, both at home and in its international relations?

To begin this discussion, let’s look at Russia’s military presence. If military spending is given as a percent of GDP, Russia outspends all other nations including the United States. Additionally, Putin has been clear about his desire to make Russia a military superpower and even recently announced the development of new nuclear warheads that could avoid current missile defense technology. Although it is doubtful, at least in my opinion, that these warheads would ever be used, some of Putin’s past decisions indicate that he is not afraid to use Russia’s military power.

Although Putin has succeeded in improving the overall economic condition of Russia, he attempts to dissuade the population from focusing upon material things and to instead focus upon defending Russia from foreign threats and building up Russia’s international power. This emphasis is evidenced by his massive military spending and by the popularity boost he experiences whenever he describes Russia’s strength. He is heavily nationalistic – Russia comes first. It also does not appear as though Putin has much in the way of a moral compass – take for example that he has supported many brutal dictators in the Middle East.

So what is the overall effect of Putin’s re-election? The next six years will tell. But if there is one take away from this blog post, it is this: don’t ignore Russia.

Doping isn’t Dope

During the Winter Olympics of 2018, held in PyeonChang, a Russian curler was expelled from the competition because he was found to have meldonium in his system. Meldonium is a drug that increases blood flow, which is thought to improve athletic performance. Although other curlers have admitted there could be performance benefits by taking the drug, it seems remarkable that one would risk their career in a sport, and more than that, their reputation, by taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), especially in curling, a sport where athleticism is not at the fore. I don’t want to focus specifically on the athlete who is accused of doping, but upon the culture that seems to exist in Russia regarding this banned practice.

Much of the world is aware that over the past several years, it has been discovered that a large percentage of the Russian Olympic team, in some cases sponsored by the state, has been caught using PEDs. As a result of this, large numbers of Russian athletes were banned from competing in the 2016 and 2018 Olympic games. Many sports are known to have problems with doping but curling was not one of these sports. This idea appears valid because curling does not seem to be a particularly strenuous activity given its emphasis on skill rather than strength or conditioning.

To be fair to all concerned, doping occurs to varying degrees in all sports, because there will always be individuals who are willing to do anything, regardless of legality, to attain the highest level. However, at the highest levels of government within Russia, there is clearly an acceptance, and possibly encouragement, of athletes using PEDs to increase their chances of achieving international success within a sport. Now, even if this single Russian curler unintentionally used PEDs as he claims, Russia still has a problem with the practice. This is not a problem that Russia sees with itself but a problem the world sees with Russia. If I had to give one simple reason that Russia’s state-backed doping is a problem, it would be because Russia seems willing to do anything to achieve success or even domination in sports. And this desire, as will be explored in other blogs, extends outside the realm of sports. Russia wants to be a respected world power – and doping is just a manifestation of the deeper underlying problem.