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Putin won the Olympics, but he lost Ukraine

Feb 27, 2014 - By Frida Ghitis, McClatchy Newspapers

Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted the Olympics to showcase his New Russia. The Sochi Olympics ended peacefully, and the games unfolded without any significant problem other than un-wintry weather.

And yet, you can be sure that Putin is not in a celebratory mood. The way things stood during the closing ceremonies, Russia won the Olympics, but it lost Ukraine.

That is a losing bargain.

The Ukrainian people launched their uprising because they wanted change at home. You might argue the matter was domestic, an issue for Ukrainians to decide, and so it was. Except that much of what they rose up against was the Russian model -- Putin-style autocracy, endemic corruption, and excessive influence from Moscow.

The protesters demanded a turn away from Moscow and toward "Europe," signifying the introduction of meaningful rule of law, human rights, modernization of the political and economic model, and, above all, the development of a system in which the government works for the good of the country, not for the enrichment of its cronies.

The Ukrainians managed to bring an end to Putin's string of successive triumphs.

In 2013, Putin put on a winner's performance. He translated his bare-chested, tiger-hunting antics from the domestic scene to the global stage. Instead of riding al fresco in Siberia, as he did for local consumption, he sent his emissaries to international conferences to show Moscow can still throw around its weight.

When President Barack Obama painted himself into a corner with a threat to strike Syria, Moscow protected its ally in Damascus and carved out an escape path for Obama with a deal to avert strikes in exchange for Syria's surrender of its chemical weapons.

In his increasingly autocratic regime, critics were silenced and opposition media outlets were smothered.

Everything was going well. Despite threats of terrorism, and notwithstanding some snafus with journalists' lodging and the climate's stubborn persistence in remaining subtropical, the games were a success.

But Ukraine spoiled Putin's party. The raging flames of Independence Square in Kiev glowed as a warning that autocracy is not permanent; the bloodshed in the streets a sign that it doesn't go without a dirty, cruel fight.

The protesters who had braved three months of brutal winter were making demands that went against everything Putin stands for.

Russia and Ukraine have close links going back centuries. The loss of Ukraine was one of the most painful losses for Moscow when the USSR collapsed in 1991.

For now, Ukraine's pro-Europe activists have won the upper hand. But Moscow has many cards up its sleeve, including diplomatic, economic and military ones.

The Olympics are over, but Russia hasn't put on its final performance.

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