By his own standards, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unprecedented move yesterday: he decided to suspend the officials mentioned in the just-released World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report, which has accused the Russian Ministry of Sport of running a state-sponsored doping cheating scheme.
WADA published new findings confirming that Russian sports officials, accompanied by FSB officers, systematically worked at subverting doping tests at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The report says that after the disappointing performance by Russia’s national team at the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010, the country’s anti-doping officials had developed a scheme for the destruction of thousands of bottles of urine samples from national athletes in order to hide their steroid use. The scheme was made possible by the FSB’s involvement: dirty samples were passed to the security service’s agents in an adjoining building through a hole in the lab’s wall.
Given that the scheme was being employed in 30 sports—including 20 Olympic summer disciplines and even in the Paralympics—WADA concluded that the presumption of innocence of all Russian athletes is in question. As a result, in its statement WADA has called on the International Olympic Committee to ban all athletes submitted by the Russian Olympic Committee and the Russian Paralympic Committee from competing in Rio 2016. It also recommends that Russian government officials be denied access to all international competitions, including Rio.
The WADA report fingers the Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, and his deputy Yuri Nagornykh, among several others. The author of the report, the Canadian lawyer Richard McLaren, found that while it was likely that Mutko knew about the cheating, it was Nagornykh who was directly issuing the orders.
In an official statement posted on the Kremlin’s website, Vladimir Putin said that “the officials named in the commission’s report as directly involved will be temporarily removed from their posts until a full investigation is complete.” Even though it is unclear from the statement who exactly Vladimir Putin is talking about, and despite the fact that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov already said that Mutko will not be suspended because he is not named as a direct participant, the decision is very much not in Putin’s style.
First of all, the Russian President never acts under pressure. For instance, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has published scores of reports on corruption among Russian officials: on the family of Russia’s Attorney General Yury Chaika, on Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who wore a $600,000 watch at his own wedding, on former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin, to name but a few. While Yakunin did lose his position, it happened a full year after the reports; the others are still employed. People joke that if a corrupt official feels he might lose his position for whatever reason, he should try to trigger an investigation by Navalny’s group, as it affords him or her strong protection. Because, again, Vladimir Putin never acts under pressure.
Second, Putin’s decision breaks his own golden rule: “never give up your own”. This unwritten law is an outgrowth of both Putin’s personal views and ideas, and the peculiarity of how the whole Russian kleptocratic system works: everyone is involved and in some way compromised, so it’s better not to make enemies without a pressing need.
At the same time, the fact that Putin has gone against his above-mentioned instincts highlights another one of his traits: Russia’s President is primarily a tactician, and a perfect opportunist. With Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan post-failed-coup power grab likely to make Putin look less like Europe’s last dictator, and with the United States trying very hard to strike some kind of deal for cooperating over Syria, Putin feels like he needs to act. Now is the opportune moment for him to stage a comeback to respectability among Western nations. Russia must not miss Rio. (At the very minimum, there will be countless opportunities for photo-ops with Obama and other world leaders.)
And of course, there are domestic considerations: Putin knows perfectly well that Russians, who are experiencing a significant decline in living standards, associate the nation’s victories with the country’s leader. It’s not for nothing that he spends a lot of his spare time conspicuously playing sports for all of Russia’s citizens to see.
And really, this is the least Putin could do. The tone of yesterday’s statement from WADA, accompanying the report’s release, was notably hostile:
despite all public undertakings that were claimed by the Russian Government, they were so confident in the inability of outsiders to detect what was going on, that they operated in the same manner during the time that WADA’s 2015 Independent Commission was carrying out its investigation. This conduct shows a total disregard for the international community; and, reinforces the urgent need for true and demonstrable commitment by the Russian authorities for a change of culture.
The fact that Putin had not suspended any officials, after the International Association of Athletics Federations banned Russian track and field athletes from the Rio Olympics in June, had clearly upset many people.
The ban, originally imposed in November of last year, was extended through the upcoming summer olympics after another WADA report detailed a “deeply rooted culture of cheating at all levels” of Russian sport. The report stated that the FSB was deeply involved in the scheme, and that it used intimidation tactics against a Moscow laboratory that tested samples for evidence of doping. Grigory Rodchenkov, who was head of the laboratory at the time, was named as an “aider and abettor of the doping activities”, and was accused of destroying more than 1,400 testing samples despite WADA demands that he preserve them. In May of this year, Rodchenkov, who had fled Russia, talked to the New York Times, and disclosed that dozens of Russian athletes at Sochi, including at least 15 medal-winners, were part of a state-run doping program. Today’s report was the result of an investigation launched by WADA in the wake of Rodchenkov’s allegations.
On the whole, Putin’s statement is not particularly contrite. Before he gets around to announcing the suspension policy, he rants against politicizing the Olympics, and goes on to denounce Rodchenkov, calling him a person “with a notorious reputation”. He states that WADA’s sweeping allegations cannot be built atop the testimony of “that kind of a person”.
The Cold War-style bluster in Putin’s statement comes from his deep belief that the West is ultimately as corrupt as Russia. People who talk to Putin say that he is sure that the Obama Administration can place a call to the New York Times‘ editors and order the publication of any article it wants. It’s classical cognitive mirroring in action: having destroyed and made a mockery of all political and social institutions in his own country—from the press, to the State Duma, to the Constitutional Court—Putin finds it impossible to accept that there is a functioning separation of powers elsewhere.
In the end, it is unclear whether Putin is upset by the very fact that his officials were cheating, or by the fact that they were caught doing it.
As the New York Times reported over the weekend, antidoping officials from at least 10 nations and 20 athlete groups were going to request that the entire Russian delegation be barred from the Rio Olympics if allegations of a state-sponsored doping program were confirmed.
The IOC was supposed to announce its decision on Russia as soon as today, but is now rumored to have postponed its decision by a few days.