Now the Sochi Games are over, Western governments are concerned
the smile will disappear and the gloves come off in Russia's
tug-of-war with Europe over the fate of Ukraine.
The circus artists, dancers and flag bearers hardly had time to
leave the stadium after the closing ceremony in Sochi before Russia
announced it had recalled its ambassador from Ukraine for
consultations in Moscow.
Russian state television could not even wait for the end of the
Games to launch a scathing attack on the ousted Ukrainian president,
Accusing him of betrayal, presenter Dmitry Kiselyov said: "The
consequences are irreversible. Ukraine is one step from a split and
probably already beyond the threshold of civil war."
The president has not spoken in public about the fall of Yanukovich,
but Kiselyov is a Putin loyalist who has the president's trust. He
will soon take over a media organization intended to polish Russia's
Western leaders are concerned Russia may be so worried about losing influence in Ukraine, the cradle of Russian civilization,
that it could use force to prevent the vast country to its west
forging closer ties with the European Union.
President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice, said
it would be a "grave mistake" if Russia sent troops to Ukraine — although the Kremlin has not suggested it would.
Britain's foreign minister, William Hague, warned against what he
called external duress or Russian intervention and said: "There are
many dangers and uncertainties."
Putin spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone and Berlin
quoted him as saying he wanted Ukraine to stay together, despite
media speculation that Russia might want to take control of
Russian-speaking regions in the east of the country.
But he said nothing in public about the bloody drama in Ukraine,
which he wants to lure into a planned trading bloc to challenge the
economic might of China and the United States.
Moldova and Georgia are watching closely. Like Ukraine, the two
former Soviet republics want to deepen ties with the European Union
but also risk upsetting Moscow.
Georgia is particularly wary because it fought a five-day war with
Russia over two breakaway Georgian regions in 2008.
The Olympics proved a welcome diversion for Putin. Russia topped the
medals table, fears of an attack by Islamist militants fighting
Russian forces in the Caucasus mountains proved unfounded and the
sports facilities were widely praised.
Putin dropped in on some of the national teams, sipped wine with
American team officials and at one point allowed himself to be
photographed with a Games volunteer on the ski slopes.
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"The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic
gold have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia," said
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.
"The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into
something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable
for the rest of the world."
The jury may be out on that. During the Games, protests were limited
to a small, scruffy park far from any Olympic venues and had to be
arranged with city authorities in advance.
A court upheld a three-year prison sentence against a local
environmental activist accused of damaging a regional leader's
property but best known for his campaigning against ecological
damage he says was caused by Olympic construction work.
At what they called a "show trial", eight protesters were convicted
in Moscow on Friday of rioting and violence against police at a 2012
protest against Putin. Their sentences were due to be handed down on
Monday, the day after the Games ended.
"Will the Kremlin draw any lessons from the Maidan (protests in
Kiev)?" opposition leader Boris Nemtsov asked in a blog. "Will they
give citizens back their freedom and give up their never-ending
rule? I doubt it very much."
Moves before the Games such as freeing former oil executive Mikhail
Khodorkovsky, who was Russia's most famous prisoner, and an amnesty
under which two members of the Pussy Riot protest group were
released from prison are dismissed by Putin's opponents as cosmetic
and intended merely to appease the West.
The Kremlin denies this. It also denies cracking down on opponents
and using the courts for political purposes.
Putin proved immune to criticism of the high cost of the Games,
thought to be around $50 billion, and said there was no evidence of
widespread corruption. If presented with such evidence, he would
investigate it, he said.
Criticism of the Games preparations was Western bias, he said, and
had echoes of the Western policy of trying to "contain" the Soviet
Union during the Cold War.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach praised
Russian's hosting of the Games, declaring: "We saw excellent Games
and what counts most is the opinions of the athletes and they were
Critics say nothing has changed fundamentally in Russia as a result
of hosting the Olympics. They worry that things will now return to
what they refer to as "business as usual".
"The harassment, detentions, arrests, fabricated charges and unfair
trials meted out to activists under the blazing lights of the
world's cameras were a blight on the Games," said Sergei Nikitin,
director of Amnesty International's Moscow office.
"It does not bode well for when the Games are over and world media
(Editing by Robert Woodward)
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