In 1995, I flew into the Caucasus on a Russian transport plane taking medical personnel back to the front in the province of Chechnya. This was the first of Moscow's two recent wars against Chechens seeking independence, and it was going badly. The doctors and nurses on board had already seen hundreds of soldiers die and were slugging vodka from bottles to prep themselves for more carnage.
When we stepped off the plane, into ankle-deep mud, one surgeon collapsed into my arms, sobbing, "What will I tell my children?" This scene is what I think of when people ask why Vladimir Putin wanted the Olympics in Sochi, which sits on the edge of a Caucasus war zone where militants are now fighting for an Islamic state.
Sochi was meant to showcase Putin triumphant, to demonstrate to the world and his own people that he had restored wealth and pride to Russia. Sochi was also meant to show that Putin was frightened of nothing and was the strongman who had put the Chechen problem to rest.
In Putin's mind, the 1995 Chechen war, fought under President Boris Yeltsin after the Soviet Union collapsed, symbolized the country's humiliation. When he came to power, Putin launched a second war that brutally crushed Chechen separatists, with total indifference to human-rights violations. Back in 2007, when Russia was awarded the games, the region was fairly quiet, but anyone familiar with it should have predicted that severe repression would breed a new terrorist threat.
"Putin wanted Sochi to convey that Russia was back, that stability had returned to the Caucasus," says Jeffrey Mankoff, deputy director of the Russian and Eurasian program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A lot of those boasts have been called into question." Rather than glamorize his successes, Sochi has highlighted the weaknesses of Putin's Kremlin-style rule.
The choice of Sochi, Putin's vacation hangout, was bizarre for many reasons. With its semi-tropical climate, it is perhaps the one place in frigid Russia that requires organizers to manufacture snow. The city totally lacked the necessary infrastructure, and the Russian leader spent $52 billion to build it (far more than China spent on the Beijing Olympics), much of that reportedly padding the pockets of cronies. Yet Putin apparently had no second thoughts.
"It comes back to the personality of Vladimir Putin," says Mankoff. Putin was using Sochi to show he knew how to fight terrorists (unlike those limp Americans), and how to rebuild his country.
To show Russians more of his macho, the Russian leader endorsed controversial legislation on gays in the run-up to the games, causing an international furor. In recent weeks, he also blatantly intervened in the politics of neighboring Ukraine, in hopes of forcing it back into Russia's sphere of influence, provoking a near civil war.
"Never before in my life has the Olympics been so politically controversial and so identified with the leader of the host country," says Andrew Kuchins, the director of the CSIS Russian program.
Instead of thinking about sports, the world is waiting anxiously to see whether Chechen terrorists try to upstage Putin. "Sochi has become the holy grail for a jihadi terrorist to go after," says Kuchins. "This is mano a mano." With athletes and spectators caught in the middle. Russia's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also increases the attraction of Sochi as a target for terrorists bent on jihad.
Rather than cooperate closely with Western security on securing Sochi, Russian officials prefer - in Putin-like fashion - to go it alone.
Moreover, Putin's Sochi project has highlighted his weaknesses rather than his strengths. At a time when the Russian economy is performing poorly, and is dependent on oil prices, the Sochi building extravaganza is a monument to old-style Kremlin thinking - the grandiose prestige projects that helped bring the Soviet empire down. And stories about the gross corruption involved will filter through to many Russians, even though they aren't reported in state media. (Russian officials are trying to close the last independent TV station, TV Rain, even as the games begin.) "Because so much of Putin's prestige is tied up with Sochi," says Mankoff, "there is a lot of attention paid to what is going on." Hopefully, the Olympics will come off safely. But the impulses that drove Putin to choose Sochi send a clear message: This is a man unable to lead Russia to a new and better future, yet he is convinced that he has all the answers.
"Like the second Chechen war, Sochi is all about Putin," says Russian journalist Natalia Gevorkyan, who has written a biography of the Russian leader. "Either Sochi is the hour of his triumph or ... we don't know. I cross my fingers that nothing bad will happen during the games." Amen.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.