When the Olympic track and field events get under way in Rio next week the sizeable contingent of Russian athletes will be missing. Given that they are banned as a result of the long overdue exposure of a state-sponsored Russian doping programme, it may seem odd to us in the west that Vladimir Putin should protest that his athletes have been subject to ‘blatant discrimination’. But most Russians will back him wholeheartedly – even if he does not truly believe it himself.
Sporting achievement is a deeply important part of the Russian psyche; and in Russian politics impulse and emotion are far more important than we realise. Russians’ understanding of their nation’s relationship with the west is steeped in decades of angst and suspicion, as well as the ancient belief that Mother Russia has historically been denied the respect she deserves.
I have written in these pages before that we must understand this national mentality if we are to achieve the sort of respect-based realism that the UK-Russian relationship demands.
In post-Brexit Europe the need to get our approach to Putin’s Russia right is more urgent than ever. This does not necessarily mean acting aggressively: there is little to be gained by expanding Nato eastwards. And we must recognise that ordinary Russians see the west’s demands that Moscow respect its neighbours’ territorial integrity as grossly hypocritical in light of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yet the restrictions on Russian participation in Rio are necessary and justified. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not a tool of international government, and has based its decision on its founding sporting principles rather than any geostrategic imperative.
But it has done the international community a favour nevertheless. As the doping revelations show, the Kremlin does not see mutually agreed rules and norms as any barrier to the realisation of its aims. This is as true of Russian foreign policy as it is of Russian sport.
Russia has executed a UK citizen in London and refused to extradite the prime suspects for a fair trial. It has illegally annexed Crimea and has consistently flouted the Minsk ceasefire agreements it has signed on Ukraine. It has persistently obstructed investigation into the downing of flight MH17.
It cannot be right that after all of this Russia is still allowed to host the 2018 football World Cup. Restrictions on Russia’s involvement in the Olympics would be valid for the same reason.
Putin’s contempt for rules where they get in the way of his plans has become so consistent that now we hardly notice. Recently, for example, the Kremlin has threatened and bullied the French and Belgian governments into introducing laws designed to prevent the former shareholders of the Yukos oil company from recovering compensation awarded to them by international courts in Strasbourg and the Hague.
So, in truth, it is something of a relief to see an international body – even if it is a sporting organisation – stand up to Russia and enforce the rules to which the country has itself consented.
And we should not underestimate the power of denying Russia the sporting acclaim it desires. International rugby’s decision to boycott South Africa for a decade helped to bring down apartheid. Nobody expects the IOC’s decision to seriously undermine Putin’s regime – but at least it stands as a reminder that rules are rules.