Sochi, Russia • Triumphant in the midst of global condemnation, Vladimir Putin clinked his champagne flute with leading sports officials, toasting the success of his pet project in Sochi.
Under chandeliers in ornate surroundings, the wine was flowing over lunch during the Paralympics this week as the Russian president saluted the transformational effect of his nation’s six-week sporting extravaganza. For Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were a validation of modern Russia’s place on the world stage and "our invariably kind attitude toward friends."
But between the Olympians leaving the Black Sea resort of Sochi last month and the Paralympians arriving, Putin became rapidly isolated in the international community as Russian forces took over Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, only 300 miles (480 kilometers) away.
The Paralympics closed Sunday night with a patriotic, high-tempo ceremony attended by Putin just as voting ended in a referendum in Crimea, denounced in the West as illegitimate, on whether it should secede from Ukraine and seek annexation by Russia.
Although Ukraine backed off from boycotting the Paralympics, the crisis afflicting their homeland remained on the minds of athletes competing in Russia. In protest, Ukrainian parathletes covered their medals during podium ceremonies.
Russia’s intervention in a neighboring country seemed to be at odds with the message it intended in this $50 billion-plus rebranding exercise — that of a nation which had moved on since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. But Putin’s government remains convinced that the successful transformation of Sochi — once a decaying Soviet-era resort — into a world-class tourist hot spot will override the current diplomatic tensions.
"The new Russia is … open to the whole world," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak said.
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