PtG Comment 23.11.2010

Will the Sochi Olympics stop NATO-expansion?

At the NATO summit this weekend, the alliance decided to enter into closer cooperation with Russia and launched 2014 as the year of withdrawal from Afghanistan. 2014 is not any year for Russia; this is the year when the Russian Federation will host the Winter Olympics for the first time. Security is going to be a hot topic in the Olympics. It might therefore be convenient to have a good relationship with NATO.

1979-2014 The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to a massive boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and retaliatory action from the Soviet Union and some of its allies in Los Angeles in 1984. Once again, Afghanistan may be an issue in the run-up to Olympic Games, but in a different way this time. It is no longer a question of conflict, but cooperation between the two Cold War rivals.

Russian reluctance

NATO has for some time tried to engage Russia in Afghanistan and tried to get them to contribute with military equipment to fight the Taliban. Russia has not been very enthusiastic about such cooperation, partly because they have a bad history in Afghanistan, partly because they have been opposed to NATO’s planned missile defence system in Europe, and partly in protest against NATO’s presence in Russia’s neighbouring areas.

War at the Olympics

NATO's presence in Russia’s neighbouring areas and NATO's role in Afghanistan could have major implications for the security plans for the Sochi Olympics. The Olympic city is just a missile shot away from Georgia and close to a turbulent Caucasus. As late as 2008, during the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, Georgia and Russia went to war against each other. The conflict in the Chechen republic is also of high relevance in the run-up to the Winter Games in Sochi.

Pay back time

Ahead of the Olympics in Athens in 2004, NATO was so dissatisfied with the security situation in Greece and the Balkan region in general that it introduced the military exercise Distinguished Games to support the Olympic security arrangements. In addition, Russia contributed with expertise to prevent terrorist attacks by Chechen terrorists. Now, it is pay back time. In 2014 it may be Russia who will need assistance to keep the Caucasus terrorist groups under control. I recall that the Balkans has often been called the Caucasus in miniature...

Heroin holiday

As part of the Distinguished Games exercise, planes were withdrawn from Afghanistan in order to help secure the Mediterranean area. The security measures were so extensive in this part the world that it was rumoured that the Balkan drug mafia took an Olympic holiday to avoid unnecessary confrontations. As a result, opium production in Afghanistan got a boost which again led to the argument that it was necessary to stay longer in Afghanistan to fight – yes, exactly – the opium production.

Georgia on my mind

It is hard to predict what closer cooperation between NATO and Russia will mean. But it might lead to Russia receiving military support from NATO during the Olympics and that Georgia will play an essential role in this cooperation. Paradoxically, it may lead to more NATO troops in Georgia as Georgia can be a convenient intermediate stage in the withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Georgia might have to give up the idea of becoming a member of NATO any time soon. There are, after all, limits to the cooperation between Russia and NATO...

This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on 22 November 2010. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on