After years of tension over Syria, missile defense and human rights, Russia's decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowdon was the straw that broke the camel's back. But the real low point in relations may have come during an appearance this week by the US president on America's most watched comedy show.
During an interview on The Tonight Show on Tuesday (6 August), the US president sat impassively as the show's long-time host Jay Leno compared the Russian regime to the Nazis and Vladimir Putin to Hitler. Leno was referring specifically to Russia's recent passage of a law banning the ‘promotion' of homosexuality and an accompanying rise of gruesome vigilante attacks on Russian gays by far-right groups.
The US president appeared to nod in agreement with the comments. “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in a way that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” he responded.
While Leno's analogy may seem extreme to Europeans, it should be noted that comparisons with Nazi Germany are a regular part of political discourse in America. But this kind of strong rhetoric about Russia's recent actions hasn't only been seen across the Atlantic.
Earlier this week the well-known British broadcaster Stephen Fry wrote an open letter to UK prime minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee urging them to strip Russia of the 2014 Winter Olympic games, scheduled to be held in the Black Sea town of Sochi in February.
In his letter, Fry compares the situation to the decision to hold the 1936 games in Nazi Germany. "It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village," he wrote. "An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 is simply essential."
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
Russia insists that the so-called "don't say gay" law, passed in June, simply prevents people from providing information about homosexuality to people under 18. However the contours of the law are so broad that the simple act of being an openly gay person could land you in jail. For instance, a Russian citizen was reportedly arrested earlier this year simply for wearing rainbow-coloured suspenders. The ‘rainbow flag' of the gay rights movement has effectively been outlawed in Russia.
‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' – recently repealed by the Obama administration. Unlike in vast swathes of the Middle East and Africa, it is legal to be gay in Russia (Russia struck down it's Stalin-era law against homosexuality in 1993). However under the new law it is illegal to talk about it. Like the previous policy in the US military, you can be gay, but you can't openly identify yourself as such.
The anger over the law has been compounded by the gruesome images circulating social media of state police forces beating gay rights activists and far-right paramilitary groups torturing gay Russians. One of the victims appearing in the photos has reportedly been killed. Photos and videos of these instances have been circulating on social media for the past several weeks, as the far-right groups have been proudly posting videos of their torture on the internet.
It is probably these images which motivated Leno to use the strong language he did, and to double down later in an interview with MSNBC. The fact that some of these far-right groups have loose ties to the Putin's party has possibly confused some people, Leno included, into thinking these are Russian state forces torturing gays. But given that the Russian government has so far not condemned what is happening, it has given the impression that these vigilantes are operating with Putin's tacit approval.
The IOC has insisted that the Russian law will not apply to gay athletes or spectators who come to Sochi for the games. But this has been contradicted by Russia's sports minister, who said the law will apply to visitors. Any brandishing of rainbow flags would be illegal.
International human rights groups are calling for the IOC to move the Olympic games to a different city, and they are calling for a boycott of the games by athletes, attendees and sponsors. Petitions are being sent to sponsors such as McDonalds and Coca-Cola asking them to pull their sponsorship. Their logos, superimposed on the gruesome images of gay people being beaten or tortured, have been circulating across social media. A loss of sponsorship could spell trouble for the games, which have already run massively overbudget at $50 billion.
The vastly different attitudes between West and East toward homosexuality have increasingly been causing problems in the sports world. The 2022 World Cup is due to be hosted by Qatar, a country in which homosexual acts are punishable with prison sentences. FIFA president Sepp Blatter was criticised when, in response to a question about what gay football fans who want to attend the games should do, he answered with a smile "I would say that they should refrain from sexual activities.”
Obama addressed this problem in his interview with Leno when he noted that Russia is far from alone in its view on homosexuality. He said Draconian laws against homosexuality have made for some “uncomfortable press conferences” for him while visiting leaders in Africa.
Across Africa and the Middle East, homosexuality is punishable by death in 7 countries and by imprisonment in 26 countries. But perhaps what makes the Russian law so alarming to people in the West is that it is seen as backsliding by a large country outside of this region. Russia is, after all, a country that straddles East and West. And it could be argued that an all-encompassing law against the mere ‘expression' of homosexuality is even more dangerous than a seldomly-enforced ban specifically on homosexual sex. It is also new – such a law is not found in the Middle East or Africa.
All of this will make for an uncomfortable Olympic games in February. When asked whether the Olympics should be moved, Obama told Leno “I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work and they understand that most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”
At this point it seems certain that gay activists will test the limits of Russian restraint by staging protests during the Sochi games. Given the frayed current relations between Russia and the West, how the country reacts could have profound foreign policy effects.