Could Russia make an Olympics pause on Ukraine?
Ancient Greece established a truce on fighting for the duration of the Olympics. A similar pause may be afoot for the Beijing Winter Games regarding a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The motivation, however, would have less to do with Russian President Putin embracing the Olympic spirit, but more about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s interest in keeping the world’s focus during the Winter Games on Beijing, not Kyiv. Indeed, Russia’s deepening economic ties with China may delay its action on Ukraine, at least for the time of an Olympics.
A tradition established in the 9th century B.C. in Ancient Greece provided for a halt to hostilities to allow safe passage of athletes to the games, the “Olympic Truce.” Although this truce has had no real traction in modern times, it is a concept that remains alive. For example, since 1993, the United Nations has periodically passed resolutions invoking the tradition. Just this past December, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution in anticipation of the Beijing games entitled “Building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal.” The resolution calls for the observance of the Olympic Truce from last week’s start of the Beijing Winter Olympics until seven days after the end of the games.
Can we expect Putin to consider the spirit of the Olympic Truce as he amasses troops on the border of Ukraine? Probably not, but his recent visit to Beijing potentially points to another reason why he might avoid taking action during the Beijing Winter Olympics.
China and Russia have had a long and often volatile relationship. The establishment of the People’s Republic of China created the prospect of cooperation between the world’s two largest communist regimes, but tensions quickly arose that led to the very visible breakdown in 1960 in the Sino-Soviet alliance. It took another 30 years before Russia’s Mikhail Gorbachev shook hands with China’s Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1989 to signal the end of the hostilities.
Much has changed since that handshake, notably the breakup of the Soviet Union. Importantly, the relative economic weights of Beijing and Moscow have also changed dramatically. In 1989, the Soviet Union’s economy notionally totaled $2.5 trillion, with Russia representing more than $500 billion of that amount. By comparison, China’s GDP totaled only $350 billion. Today, Russia’s GDP has risen to $1.5 trillion, but China’s economy has far surpassed it at $15 trillion.
When President Putin traveled to Beijing last week, it was in a very different context than when Gorbachev was there previously. Unsurprisingly, prominent in Putin’s announcements were the $117 billion in deals for Russian oil and gas exports to China. This commercial relationship should gain in importance for Moscow because the appetite for Russia’s fossil fuels from its other big customer, the European Union, will decrease as Europe decarbonizes and NATO capitals look to diversify away from Russian supply, while China’s demand for fuel imports will increase.
Putin’s visit to Beijing also provided an opportunity to gain Xi’s support in criticizing NATO, reminiscent of a time when Moscow led the Cold War against NATO. The timing of this visit, however, was not set by Moscow, but rather by President Xi to coincide with the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
President Xi has been intent on using these Olympics to promote the image of China as an advanced global economic power, including by hosting leaders such as Putin. Numerous articles describe how much China has changed since it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. For example, as NBC notes: “The country hosting the 2022 Winter Games is no longer rising — China has risen.” But the article goes on to remark: “The world feels very differently about China than it did 14 years ago,” noting a diplomatic boycott announced by the White House in December due to “human rights abuses” and citing a survey saying “unfavorable views of China were at or near historic highs in most of the 17 advanced economies.”
In this context, the Olympics provide an opportunity, as described by the New York Times, for Xi to showcase to the world how China “is staging the Olympics on his terms.” The spectacle of the opening ceremony produced the type of imagery that Beijing likely hoped for (albeit, subdued by COVID-19 and other restrictions). The subsequent two weeks should similarly provide compelling images from Beijing, from figure skating and ice hockey to skiing and more.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine would detract from those images. President Xi likely also sees this potential negative impact on his Olympics. Even though media coverage has interspersed sports and Olympic pageantry with human rights and other concerns, images of the world’s best athletes competing at these Beijing Olympics will inevitably elicit some favorable feelings from people around the globe. A concurrent invasion of Ukraine by Xi’s ally Putin would shatter the aura of those Olympic moments.
And so, a de facto Olympic Truce may hold Putin’s hand for two weeks, albeit not because of Ancient Greece, but rather the sway of modern China with its economy that is 10 times bigger than Russia’s. The potential Beijing could influence Moscow has also not been lost on the Biden administration, as reflected in Press Secretary Jan Psaki’s recent caution to China that “a destabilizing conflict in Europe would impact China’s interests all over the world,” as well as warnings to Chinese firms about sanctions in the event of a Russia/Ukraine conflict.
The Olympics show, however, will end on Feb. 20 with its closing ceremony. Moreover, Putin’s leverage on the European Union will fade as winter recedes, at least when it comes to the threat of halting natural gas supplies, while warming weather may bring logistical complications for Russia. Do these factors point to a particularly tense and dangerous period for Russian action immediately following an Olympics pause?
While much has been written about what drives President Putin, clearly China’s relationship is taking on greater importance for Moscow. This may point to calmer weather regarding Ukraine for these two Olympic weeks, but with the prospects of a real storm shortly thereafter.
Philippe Benoit has over 25 years of experience working in international affairs, including prior positions at the World Bank and in Europe. He is currently managing director, Energy and Sustainability at Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050.