Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
By the time the closing ceremony marked the end of Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, pro-Russian demonstrators in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula were already out in the streets. Within days, the unidentified “little green men,” masked soldiers with hidden insignia, began what became Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most brazen violation of international law: the capture and annexation of another country’s territory.
Putin waited until the Sochi games were over to launch the attack on Crimea, probably so as not to detract from what he hoped would be a showcase for Russian achievement. There were other theories about the timing – including an effort to distract from the growing allegations of massive corruption around the expense of hosting The Games – but the need to keep a spotlight on Sochi was likely a motivating factor.
Eight years later, as Putin prepares to attend the opening ceremony of Beijing’s Winter Olympics next week, Russian troops have amassed along Ukraine’s borders, awaiting the Russian President’s decision on whether or not to invade.
This time, Putin will likely think twice before overshadowing the Olympics (or at least the earlier part of it) and marring Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s time to shine on the global stage. That’s because Putin and Xi have become the world’s autocracy bros.
The two leaders have undertaken eerily similar tactics to achieve the results to which they both aspire. They have both orchestrated a change of rules so they can stay in power for decades beyond their term limits. To maintain their grip on power, they are also increasingly crushing dissent at home, imprisoning critics – and worse, intimidating their neighbors and seeking to expand their country’s sphere of influence.
They have shown themselves willing to do whatever it takes to silence calls for democracy and human rights at home. They have cracked down and accused their own citizens of acting as puppets of foreign powers, as if it were impossible to live in China or Russia – in, say, St. Petersburg or Hong Kong – and genuinely desire democracy.
China makes it a point to tell its citizens and the world that Western-style democracy is an inferior, chaotic and ineffective system. Russia, too, portrays the US as a declining superpower, but a threatening one nonetheless. They argue that democracy and human rights, rather than a universal yearning, are a fabrication of the West. And, for good measure, they silence anyone who seems to be accumulating too much power, including business tycoons, unless they seem sufficiently subservient.
Rather than a significant ideological motivation, the main purpose of these repressive tactics is to protect their rule.
Putin talks about NATO and the threat it poses to Russia’s borders. But it’s Ukraine’s turn toward a freer, democratic West that troubles him most. The yearning for freedom is contagious and he knows it. So does Xi.
Putin knows that a democratic Ukraine on Russia’s border can inspire those at home who want change, just as West Germany’s freedoms during the Cold War prompted the Soviet Bloc to build a wall around East Berlin. In the 1980s, Putin was stationed in Dresden as a foreign KGB agent when East Germans tore down the wall – an event that set the stage for the Soviet Union’s collapse.