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Marta Dyczok discusses war, sports and politics in Ukraine

While athletes competed for gold in Rio, Russia turned up the heat in Crimea. On Wednesday, Russia issued a statement that they had foiled Ukrainian attempts to conduct terrorist acts in Crimea, and that two Russians had been killed by Ukrainians. Russia’s President Putin accused Ukraine of trying to provoke a conflict, that there were no prospects for continuing the Minsk Peace process, and that Russia would hold war games in the Black Sea.

August 17, 2016 - Marta Dyczok - Interviews

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The story began on Tuesday, when Ukrainian media began reporting that Russia had closed the border with Crimea. Ukrainians living in Crimea and those who left but have relatives living there, had travelled back and forth since the annexation in 2014, although they had to go through various checkpoints.

Once Russia’s accusations hit the headlines on Wednesday, Ukraine responded. It denied any attempted incursions into Crimea, and called Putin’s claims preposterous. Ukraine’s President Poroshenko asked for immediate talks with Russia, the US, Germany, and France. He put all of Ukraine’s security services on high alert, and asked Ukrainians not to travel to Crimea for the time being. The United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on the issue. The US State Department and the EU reportedly called on both Russia and Ukraine to reduce tensions near the administrative boundary between Crimea and Ukraine.

MARTA DYCZOK: In 2008 during the Beijing Olympics Russian tanks crossed into Georgia and there was a very short but deadly war. As a result Georgia lost a part of its territory –South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now it is a frozen conflict. The Rio Olympic Games started last week and in a few days Russia was making statements that Ukraine is sponsoring terrorism, attempting terrorist activities in Crimea, that two Russians have died. President Putin says that Minsk process has no future. To talk about sports, politics, and war we have two guests on our studio today. Mr. Mefford, I would like to start with you. We were planning to talk about politics and sports but with everything that has happened with Russia recently let’s talk about what’s happening. Many are focusing on the Olympics and Russia is making the statements, ramping up pressure, causing UN to have emergency council meeting. Is the timing of these significant? Ukraine is about to face its 25th anniversary in a few weeks. And the Olympics. And the escalation. Why is this timing?

BRIAN MEFFORD: There are two historical precedents. First of all, August 8th 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia during Beijing Olympics. And number two, the Sochi games in February 2014 when days afterwards Russia annexed Crimea. The third thing, Ukraine is coming up to the 25th anniversary of its independence. Something that Russia or Vladimir Putin does not like to talk about. He considers Ukraine to be part of Russia. Perhaps in an effort to spoil Ukraine’s celebrations on the 25th (of August) and remind of the Russian army on the borders to the north, east and south…That could explain some recent activities in Crimea.

MICHAEL GETTO: I would agree with what Brian said. In addition, there is an on-going diversion by Putin from what’s happening in Russia. Economic growth is negative.  Russia is an emerging market, which means it needs to grow significantly and the Russian economy did not grow for the last couple of years because of the variety of reasons. Even going before the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the hostilities and the war in Eastern Ukraine and Donbas. Putin is a master at diverting Russian people from what’s happening in their own country.

And international attention…

MG: Absolutely. And sometimes we easily fall for it. There are some other factors that may have played into the bitterness of Russia. The Russian Olympic team, which has been thinned down. Many people believe they should be left out the Olympics. That’s yet another grievance that Russia has and that could playing a role here as well. And just to back up what Brian said earlier. The 25th anniversary is something that really sticks in Russia’s craw.

You touched on the Olympics which is I really wanted to talk about today. You were involved in 1984 Olympics and they were very political games. Sports and politics are always related. The Olympic games are about politics as much as they are about sports because it’s nations competing against each other. Sometimes nations pull out the Olympic games as a political statement. What’s the political dimension that you see in the Olympic games of 2016. You started talking about the doping scandal. But is there more there?

MG: I would say the Olympics, and I would say the global competition, is always political. As long as they run flags and medal ceremonies there is a certain amount of nationalism that goes with the Olympics and global championships and global sport. There is nothing wrong with that. Ukrainians should be proud to see their flag and their athletes doing well. As Americans, Canadians and anybody else. That is positive.  But in Russia sport has become a part of the political hierarchy and the political system. It’s intimately involved. This doping scandal has hit hard at Russians because they like to think of themselves as a sporting superpower. In many respects Russia has been. The Olympic event is a crown jewel. But they basically defrauded it.

And the crown jewel being?

MG: Sochi. They spent over 50 billion dollars on putting this elaborate show. It turns out that at least half of their medal winners were doped up. First there was a lot of denial and now they are trying to throw themselves at the mercy of the international sports community. They have admitted some problems but this is a part of the larger narrative that the world and the West in particular are against Russia excluding Russia from international institutions whether it’s trade, security and in this case sport. There are some athletes participating in Rio but in the big sports, the name sports, Russia is not going to be in an equation.

When politics enter sports, especially when Ukraine and Russia are at the state of war, how does this affect the athletes?

MG: I think there is some rivalry to be sure. Russians and Ukrainians have competed against each other before in past Olympics. There have been in Rio a couple of dust ups Ukrainian athletes and Russian news media.

Can you tell us about this?

MG: There was a Ukrainian athlete… By the way, I should say that doping is not a Russian problem. They have massively institutionalised it but it is not a Russian problem. In the US we had some dopers. Specifically, there is one sprinter who will be participating and there are a lot of second guessing if he is going to win the gold medal. But it is not institutionally as it is in case with Russia. It will be like Central Intelligence Agency managing the US Olympic effort in Rio. CIA does not do it unless you are a conspiracy theorist.

You were about to tell us about the dust up between the Ukrainian athlete and the Russian media…

MG: There was a Ukrainian sprinter who had served a doping suspension. She was asked by the Russian journalist, “So what’s the difference? You are here and our people aren’t”. She said that I do not think it is quite fair that the Russian athletes are not here because some of them perhaps have not doped. She was missing the point that this is an institutional problem in Russia. And of course the Russian journalist, or “journalist”, went running Moscow saying “See, even this drug cheat in Ukraine admits that we are being treated fairly”.  After that the Ukrainian Athletic Federation said “do not talk to Russian journalists. Stay away from them.”

Brian, back to you. We started with the timing of this. Are we likely to see further escalation of tensions between Russian and Ukraine during the Olympics?

BM: There is only one person who knows that and it is Vladimir Putin. That’s a “How deep is the ocean?” kind of question. We hope and pray that’s not going to be a case. We hope and pray that worst of the hostilities are over. Unfortunately, it is always a question. Everyday Vladimir Putin wakes up, he makes a decision. The elements are there for an increase in hostilities, no doubt about that. If you look at the number of casualties that have taken place this summer they have actually escalated quite dramatically to the highest point since August 2014. That is very worrisome. There’s been a steady drum beat, the tension has been turned up all summer. That could be guns of summer. If you going to make war it is easier to do it in the summer, than in the cold of January in Kyiv. Without a doubt it is a worrisome sign. We hope that it is simply manoeuvres not going to be escalated to a full-fledged invasion or conflict.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to portray himself as an athlete. We know those images of him in a judo outfit or on a horseback. Is there a dimension here that president/athlete is waging further escalation during the Olympics?

MG: It could be. It’s hard to get inside Putin’s head sometimes. Sport is a part of the Russian narrative because Russians during the Soviet days were very successful in sports. That could be part of that. The Olympic year is also the US presidential year. I also think this year is particularly profound given the fact that Russia has allegedly been involved in US political process. That could be a factor. I still do not think we know what exactly happened down in Crimea. It seems that the timing does seem rather strange.

Well, the UN’s Security Council is meeting over this issue and we will wait to see what if anything comes out this meeting. 

*This conversation is a transcript of Hromadske Radio’s Ukraine Calling show hosted by Marta Dyczok. It has been republished here courtesy of Hromadske Radio.

Brian Mefford is a business and political consultant, author of the popular Ukrainian Political blog, Atlantic Council non-resident Fellow.

Michael Getto is an international development and elections consultant. He worked on the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Marta Dyczok hosts Ukraine Calling, a weekly roundup of what’s been happening in Ukraine. She is also Associate Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Western Ontario, and CERES Fellow at the University of Toronto, Canada. 

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