The offensive, we are told, will take many forms. The first sign may well be a cyber-attack knocking out the power grid and internet, jamming mobile phone networks. Well-funded paramilitaries within Ukraine’s borders will be encouraged to create as much disorder as possible. There will be a blitz of propaganda, misinformation and false-flag operations. And then – finally – the blood sacrifice: the trained young men and women prepared to lay down their bodies for greater Russia.
Perhaps we all got a taste of how this might play out on a much smaller scale on Thursday night. As a distraught Kamila Valieva left the ice after a disastrous skate that would cost her a medal in the Olympic women’s competition, the first person to greet her was her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. “Why did you let it go?” she screeched at Valieva in disbelief. “Explain it to me. Why? Why did you stop fighting?”
For all the deep, voyeuristic discomfort of the exchange, Valieva’s treatment also felt jarringly at odds with the solidarity and belligerence that Russian officials had displayed for much of the past week as their gold medal hope was embroiled in a scandal over a failed doping test. How could Russia fight so vehemently for Valieva only to disown her so publicly after the event? But, of course, that was the difference. Before, Valieva was a potential gold medal for Russia, an asset worthy of state-level protection. Now she was nothing. The motherland thanks you for your sacrifice. But it has no further use for you. Next.
And, of course, there will be a next. If history is any guide, then it is probably safe to assume we have seen the last of Valieva in Olympic competition. This is the fourth successive Winter Games in which none of the Russian figure skating team from the previous Olympics made it to the next. Such is the depth and Darwinist savagery of the country’s skating programme, the lust for fresh and unspoilt young talent, the cheapness of human dignity and health, that by the time of Milan 2026 there will already be more Valievas, more Anna Shcherbakovas, more Alexandra Trusovas.
For her part Valieva remains perhaps the only blameless party here. It does not feel remotely controversial to point out that a 15-year-old girl taking part in an enormous state-run sporting programme might not necessarily enjoy complete autonomy over the substances going into her body, any more than a soldier gets to choose the city he invades. Indeed, it is probably more helpful to think of her as the sporting equivalent of the Russian men and women currently crouched behind the Ukrainian border in their thousands: young and fit, in the prime of life and yet utterly expendable, live meat waiting to be flung into somebody else’s war.
As the world’s diplomats and geopolitical experts peer into the fog trying to divine Russia’s intentions, perhaps sport offers a handy paradigm for how the country has chosen to behave on the global stage. In many ways sport’s governing bodies have been grappling for years with what much of the wider world is only now encountering: the challenge of corralling and constraining a power that shows no inclination of playing by the same basic rules and norms as everyone else.
From the Sochi Olympics to the 2018 football World Cup to the massive state-sponsored Olympic doping programme that Russia continues to insist never existed, sport is a useful prototype for the rules of engagement that the Putin regime is now so dramatically bringing to the battlefield.
International organisations, whether Fifa or Wada or the International Olympic Committee, are only as strong as their weakest link. Inconvenient narratives and insubordinate individuals can simply be denied, dismissed, discredited: witness how the British journalists who first broke the story of Valieva’s positive test claim they have faced a barrage of abuse and even death threats online. And, ultimately, the ends will always justify the means.
There are two ways, I suppose, of looking at all this. Perhaps the impotence and indecision of western powers in the face of Russian aggression is an indication that standing up to Putin’s gangster state is easier said than done. If Nato cannot agree on an effective way of curbing Putin, then is it really fair to expect as much of the IOC president, Thomas Bach, a 68-year-old former fencer? Yet by the same token sport is irredeemably part of the greater enterprise here, the little unpunished broken windows that have persuaded the Kremlin the whole compound is up for grabs.
In another saner world it would be appropriate to ask whether any of this is still fit for purpose. Clearly figure skating has some deep-seated ethical issues to deal with here, from its exploitation of young women on the very brink of adolescence to its controversial judging system to its history of eating disorders. “With each gram of weight, a gram of laziness is added,” Tutberidze said in a 2021 interview, and one wonders if a more enlightened sport might have considered restraining her rather than revering her for years as a legend.
All the mood music coming out of Beijing suggests the IOC will instead rattle the sabres for a few days and then do very little. By the time Valieva’s doping case is finally heard, the world will have moved on to other matters and so will Russia. After all, there are always new theatres, new frontiers: new wars to fight and new bodies to fight them with.