This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
What do atrocities in Syria and Russia’s Olympic hopes have in common? A Russian tycoon named Vladimir Lisin. The mogul has his hands in just about everything from steel mills to a media empire and currently serves in one of the top spots on the Russian Olympic Committee. Disturbingly, Lisin is also accused of enabling mass atrocities in Syria.
A cargo ship owned by steel magnate’s vast business conglomerate is suspected of having delivered Russian arms to the Assad regime that has mercilessly killed more than ten thousand of its own people. According to news reports, just one day after the Houla massacre, one of Lisin’s ships reached Syria’s second largest port to offload an alleged shipment of weapons from St. Petersburg.
The Russian government is already losing face for their support of the brutal Syrian regime. Now, this shadow is being cast over Russia’s Olympic athletes. Russia is not the Olympic powerhouse it used to be and the country is hoping that $1 million in prize money from Lisin’s bloody pockets will inspire gold medal success. In fact, it seems that Lisin’s primary job as vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee is to raise funds for the country’s athletes.
Lisin’s role on the ROC has put a spotlight on the question of how the Russian oligarch amassed his vast fortune, and on the very lucrative arms trade with Syria. It has also provided an unusual opportunity for Russia’s athletes to salvage Russia’s image — by siding with the international community and supporting an end to violence in Syria.
The multi-billion dollar arms trade between Russia and Syria has been well exposed in recent months. The question becomes should Russian gold medalists accept Lisin’s prize money, paid for by this deadly trade in weapons to Syria? The stakes are critically high for Syria’s people. A United Nations report released just yesterday confirmed that children are being used as human shields. Massacres documented in only the past two weeks include the killing of an estimated 38 people in Homs yesterday, and 96 deaths in various cities this past Saturday. Activists say over 14,000 people have been killed since the violence started in March 2011. Although the international community has imposed harsh economic sanctions on the Assad regime, this has not stemmed the flow of blood — nor, importantly, have the sanctions stopped the flow of weapons into Assad’s hands.
The unintended spotlight on the role of Vladimir Lisin, and Russian companies, in aiding and abetting mass atrocities in Syria presents an important opportunity. Russia, more than any other nation, holds the key to ending the bloodshed in Syria. Russia is Syrian President Assad’s most important backer, and is the most strident opponent to strong United Nations Security Council action on Syria. Russia must intervene, condemn Assad’s assaults on his own people, and facilitate negotiation with the opposition and a removal of Assad from power.
As for Russia’s athletes, they can accept Lisin’s prize money or they could give it back. More powerfully still, they could accept it and then donate it to the courageous humanitarian and human rights organizations that are assisting Syria’s refugees, and documenting the continued atrocities. Such a public gesture would require more than a little bravery on the part of the Russian Olympic team; Russia is not a country where speaking out on human rights is particularly safe, nor do public challenges to Russia’s oligarchs go without retaliation. Russian athletes might face retribution for taking this stand, but the consequences of doing nothing will mean far worse for the children of Syria.