It was an unexpected and inglorious end to what was supposed to be an easy road to Olympic gold: on Thursday, Russia's reigning men's figure skating champion, Evgeni Plushenko, bowed out of the competition right before he was to take the ice in the singles event. As disappointed as he undoubtedly was (not to mention the fans), 31-year-old Plushenko has the rest of his life ahead of him, with a stack of Olympic hardware to his name and a celebrity brand to build upon. In time, his decision may be seen as noble- or at the very least, inevitable. Sometimes, you just have to know when it's time to quit.
Street protesters in Ukraine and besieged civilians in Syria are probably hoping that the Russian government will follow their golden boy's lead and have the nerve to admit that their current foreign policy just isn't cutting it anymore. There was a time when all the scheming, subtle back-stabbing, and behind-the-scenes arm twisting was working very much in their favour. One only has to look at the masterful way foreign minister Sergey Lavrov very publicly outmanoeuvred president Obama and secretary of state John Kerry last fall as the latter sought to build public support for armed intervention in Syria. No matter that the Russia-brokered deal to remove all chemical weapons from Syria is foundering alongside missed deadlines and accusations of foot-dragging by the Assad regime. That was still a solid win for the Russians.
Similarly, Russia's success in derailing the vaunted eastern partnership talks between the European Union and Ukraine in November 2013 helped to burnish its reputation as a disruptive force in international relations, an impressive outlier in what can sometimes be a hegemonic western view of what diplomacy "should" look like. Again, the fairly extreme consequences of these strong-arm tactics do not take away from the fact that one determined dictator singlehandedly crushed the aspirations of 28 democratic governments in one fell swoop. Game, set, match: Putin.
But as unimaginative songwriters continuously remind us: things change, and nothing stays the same forever. This is more true in diplomacy- with its tangled web of overlapping and conflicting interests- than in almost any other sphere. Russia deservedly savoured its victories over the US and the EU, proving repeatedly that it deserves to be at the negotiating table and that whispers of its loss of influence are premature. However, the time for being obstructionist just for the sake of it are long past, and Russia needs to come to terms with the fact that just because a policy was appropriate three or six months ago (or three or six years ago) doesn't mean it's appropriate now. There is no shame in saying "I'm open to new ideas."
Russia needs some new ideas. In a week where it has threatened to veto (again) a U.N. Security Council resolution on the provision of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Syria, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instead been tweeting about an urgent demarche it sent to the U.S. Ambassador about the poor health of a Russian pilot who is imprisoned in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. The MFA expressed its hope for a "quick response" from the State Department, noting that "humanitarian considerations" should be at the forefront when human lives are "in danger." Well, yes. I'm sure the residents of Homs would agree. (What is the Russian word for "irony?")
Similarly, FM Lavrov just authored a blustery article decrying the deterioration in Russia-EU relations over what shall henceforth be known as "the Ukraine situation." He unconvincingly tries to conflate "anti-Russian rhetoric" with anti-Semitism, which would be hilarious in its tone-deafness if it weren't so scary. Russia has never been particularly nice to its Jewish citizens, but Lavrov must know the quickest way to shut down freedom of speech is to allege that it has racist undertones. The piece also rather menacingly notes that attempts to isolate Russia "have always led to the activation of processes leading to sleepwalking into the disasters of world wars." Indeed. I guess the impending centenary of World War I leaves no room for subtlety.
Russia's tagline as "the Anti-America" is wearing thin. It served a useful purpose in the immediate post-Yeltsin years, but it has run its course. The government now has the opportunity to leverage the goodwill and good PR from the Olympics into a total rebranding exercise: from "Dr. No" to "Churchill for the 21st Century": yes to national pride, yes to international collaboration, yes to disavowing murderous megalomaniacs. And if they can't- or won't- engage, then it's time to cede the stage to younger, healthier competitors that still have the drive and ability to work towards something bigger than themselves. Sometimes, you just have to know when it's time to quit.