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Isolating Russia Isn't Working. The West Needs a New Approach

Rio athletics ban will do untold damage

Nothing will hit Russia like the ban on its athletes taking part in the Rio Olympics – not the US and EU sanctions over Ukraine, not losing the Eurovision song contest, not even their dismissal from the G8. A chorus of voices from outside Russia will respond to this: a jolly good thing, too. If it takes a sports ban to bring home to Russians that their country is falling shamefully short of international standards and must learn how to “behave”, then so much the better. The pressure on Vladimir Putin, from his courtiers to the grassroots, will surely force change.

The trouble is that this is not how it looks from Russia, nor is a national drive to “shape up” likely to be the result. Of course, their country is no longer the sporting superpower it was when it used to compete as part of the Soviet Union. But Russia is as sports-mad as any country, and a ban on its athletes going to Rio will be treated as a throwback to the still-resented western boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

The reason for the boycott back then was the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan the previous year, which drew ferocious condemnation from the west, still in the grip of the cold war. The double irony, of course, is that within a decade, the Afghan war had become a liability to Moscow to the point where it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and within a little more than two decades it was the western powers that were so embroiled. Piling irony upon irony is the fact that the Lord Coe – who signed off on the IAAF ban on Russia last week – is the same Seb Coe who won gold in Moscow after defying the UK boycott.

The argument made by dissenters, such as Coe, in 1980, was that sport and politics should not mix, and today it is possible to make the argument that the IAAF ban is entirely sports-related – due punishment for years of state-sponsored doping that deprived clean athletes of their just rewards. In Russia, however, the distinction will seem less clear.

Russians will ask why something they are good at, such as athletics, attracts such a penalty, while other countries with dubious records on doping remain strangely exempt. Putin will have spoken for many when he attacked the IAAF move as unfair. Russians see it as part of a general western cold-shouldering, which includes not just the Ukraine-related sanctions, but all the grievances listed by Putin way back in his 2007 Munich speech, about Nato expansion and the west’s refusal, in his view, to treat Russia as an equal.

Taking a hard line, whether on Crimea or the IAAF ban, does Putin no harm in Russia at all. Now the sum of western slights (as they are seen) are being cast in Moscow as the west’s own version of “hybrid warfare” – actions that together might constitute a state of war, but are passed off as something else.

A Russian appeal may mean that the ban is not the last word. But it should not be the last word in the west either. An extraordinary demarche came at the weekend from the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. In an interview with Bild am Sonntag newspaper, he accused Nato – an alliance, lest we forget, of which Germany is a member – of “sabre-rattling and war-mongering” by staging military manoeuvres close to Russia’s borders. This, he said, was not the way to treat Russia; it was time to restart dialogue.

Steinmeier is a cautious politician, and it is unlikely that he uttered those words without at least tacit support from chancellor Angela Merkel. Which suggests that between the European members of Nato there is sharp disagreement about how to handle Russia: whether punitive isolation or engagement is the better course.

The argument, which has simmered in western capitals for months, has now burst into the open less than three weeks before Nato holds its summit in Warsaw. In breaking ranks as he did, Steinmeier has exposed the awkward truth. Isolation has not produced a more cooperative Russia, only a less stable Europe. It is time to try another way.

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