The last time Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Beijing, the logistics went smoothly and the pageantry was world class, though reports of Russia’s invasion of Georgia threatened to steal the spotlight and distract from an otherwise good show.
Fighting had broken out in August 2008, even before Putin sat down in his VIP box in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium on the eighth day of the eighth month to enjoy the lavish opening ceremony choreographed by the legendary filmmaker Zhang Yimou. Putin reportedly got real-time updates from the front during the festivities and rushed home soon afterward.
On February 4, 2022, Putin and his large entourage will again be whisked in and out of the Bird’s Nest with state-of-the-art security, disciplined traffic control and VIP creature comforts worthy of an honored guest, although he reportedly refuses to eat anything prepared outside of Russia.
It’s the tale of two Olympics in one city, two opening ceremonies held 14 years apart in the same stadium, attended by the same Russian strongman.
This time around, the Russian leader’s presence at the Beijing winter games again brings with it rumors of war, and while his willingness to attend is valued by Beijing for the usual reasons of protocol and diplomatic face, Putin’s presence this time around is truly problematic.
Any media attention directed at the Russian leader is an uncomfortable reminder that a catastrophic war with Ukraine is in the offing.
As if the pandemic wasn’t worry enough.
The pandemic caused Tokyo to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics, which were met with empty venues and a disgruntled populace when they finally played out a year later. China is betting on its remarkably low Covid infection rate and its ability to impose draconian lockdowns
and strict quarantine on short notice to achieve what eluded Tokyo; a masterfully choreographed Olympics untainted by the Covid plague.
The eye-catching centerpiece of both Beijing Olympics, the Bird’s Nest stadium, was designed by a master design team bringing together both Chinese and non-Chinese architects, including lead designer Li Xinggang, and the world famous firm, Herzog & de Meuron. Their iconic masterwork remains a centerpiece of pomp and ceremony. It helped Beijing get a second bid without having to commit to building a new stadium.
China’s leadership has shrewdly avoided VIP attendance at major confabs during these pandemic times, most recently the 2021 climate conference in Glasgow which was full of traffic jams, idling jets, risk of Covid exposure and numerous other complaints.
China has wisely learned how to phone it in as necessary, thus limiting unnecessary travel. Even summits take place over video links now.
But sports are a different matter and tradition requires it to be a spectacle of athletes performing for an audience.
It’s hard to imagine Beijing turning away any member of Putin’s delegation, even if they fail to quarantine the requisite number of days or are not fully vaxxed, but the recent expulsion of world tennis champion Novak Djokovic from Australia is an uncomfortable reminder that big sports events can easily come into conflict with the requirements of public health.
Cheering crowds of locals and VIP delegations alike are natural incubators for contagion.
And as if the pandemic headaches aren’t enough, there is pressure to roll out the red carpet for Putin because the U.S. and several like-minded nations have imposed mild diplomatic boycotts on the games.
One of the Bird’s Nest design team members, iconic artist Ai Weiwei, recently noted that the West’s attempt to boycott was “futile and pointless” because Beijing is confident and cocky enough not to care.
But the possibility of a large-scale boycott has fizzled out and the Covid contagion rate in the Beijing area is low, so it may still be possible for Beijing to extract a public relations victory from the jaws of diplomatic dissent and Covid fears.
But what about war?
U.S. President Biden has stated there is a distinct possibility of Ukraine being invaded by Russia in February which raises troubling questions about the optics of Putin’s visit to Beijing.
Is Beijing being used, or inadvertently lending credibility to a belligerent on the eve of an attack?
That’s not the kind of “win-win” situation Beijing was looking for when it first sent out VIP invitations to the games.
Leaving Putin’s big footprint aside, the Beijing winter games will also be a test for the resolve of athletes from Russia and Ukraine who will cross paths and encounter flags of the “enemy” inside the Olympic bubble.
It is certainly in Beijing’s short-term interests that things be kept under wraps on the Russo-Ukraine border, even if it means putting pressure on Putin to postpone whatever strategic surprise he has planned for a couple of weeks.
But it is also in Beijing’s interests that peace in Ukraine be sustained in the long term, though true neutrality may prove elusive.
China’s relations with Ukraine cannot compare in geopolitical import to relations with Russia, but relations with Ukraine are productive and stable, and Kiev is a natural hub for “Belt and Road” dreams connecting Asia to Europe.
China currently imports most of its corn from Ukraine, which along with other agricultural products, makes it something of a backup breadbasket for the world’s most populous nation. China’s exports to Ukraine are second only to the EU.
One of the best things that can be said about the Belt and Road vision of growing trade, infrastructure and cultural linkages is that it is predicated on peace.
What kind of friend of China is Putin if he puts all that at risk?