I must admit that I really like the Olympics. It’s real.
I find the display of dedication, hard work, and national pride on the world stage to be uplifting, particularly the stories of humble beginnings and triumph over adversity. Some events display grace and style, others pure grit and determination. I didn’t get to see a lot, but I really enjoyed seeing the American skeleton athlete Noelle Pikus-Pace win a silver medal.
The mother of two was so excited that she jumped into the stands. It was also pretty sweet to see our guys beat the Russians in the hockey shoot out!
As the Sochi Olympics began, the headline in a major U.S. newspaper screamed, “Russia is back!”
At its core, the Olympics are about sports and sportsmanship, but other agendas are naturally present. The Olympics were a chance for the Russians to present themselves to the world in a new light, displaying their renewed capability as a world power as well as their athletic prowess.
For a time, the spirited fight for gold, silver, and bronze distracted the world from a deeper geopolitical maneuvering playing out in neighboring country of Ukraine.
The former Soviet country is the scene of tragic deaths, as protests against the now deposed dictatorial Ukrainian president turned violent.
In November 2013, then-President Viktor Yanukovych rejected an Association Agreement with the European Union at the behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This event, combined with rampant corruption, brutal repression of the political opposition and protesters, along with the suspension of basic civil liberties, sparked the confrontation.
Yanukovych has now fled Ukraine and is reportedly in Russia. His hidden extravagant compound has been exposed, with all of its dripping excess.
A tug-of-war between the Russian and European spheres of influence is unfolding as Ukraine struggles to develop a credible and democratic-oriented government.
Russia’s long and tangled relationship with Ukraine is entering a new chapter as Ukraine strives to reconcile its outreach to Europe, a longing for self-determination, and the reality of divided ethnic sentiments. Western Ukraine, encompassing the capital city of Kiev, is heavily oriented toward Europe, while the eastern part of the country is oriented toward neighboring Russia.
The final outcome of this situation is uncertain. As many as a hundred people have been killed since the uprising began.
Russia has taken the opportunity to assert its influence, particularly in the Crimean region, an ethnic Russian stronghold. Located to the south on the Black Sea, the Crimean peninsula has a long history steeped in Russian culture. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has basing rights at Sevastopol, a Crimean port city, until 2042. The region’s ethnic Russian population is deeply sympathetic to Moscow.
Recent news reports indicate that armed men, presumed to be Russian commandos, took control of the Crimean regional airport facilities, which Ukraine is calling an armed invasion by the Russians. The prospects for secession are real. The United States is engaging with partners in Europe as well as with Russia in an effort to ease tensions until new elections can be held.
Complicating matters, the country has a high debt load. The Russians have offered a $15 billion bailout to sweeten the deal for the Ukrainians to reject European overtures. Energy realities further the complexity.
The majority of natural gas bound for Europe from Russia transits Ukraine. Recent clashes in Kiev and elsewhere vividly highlight the nation’s position at the edge of Europe. A large majority of Ukranians are rejecting the drift into a uniquely Russian sphere of influence.
Russia now has a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world that strength lies in the confident engagement seen in Sochi, rather than consolidating a legacy of subjugation and control. There is some criticism that perhaps the U.S. lost the opportunity in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall by not being attentive enough to the types of reforms that would have established Russia’s orientation to the West, while at the same time respecting her unique cultural and historic perspective.
But the central responsibility lies with Russia to respect the Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political autonomy.
Hopefully this tense moment passes constructively, allowing Ukraine to forge its way forward as an independent nation, purging political and economic corruption as it sets solid boundaries and reasoned relations with its Russian neighbor.
Jeff Fortenberry represents Nebraska's first district in the U.S. House of Representatives.