SOCHI, Russia (AP) — 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.
"That is how we show our protest and disagreement that our country could be divided and part of it could be excluded from Ukraine," said Iuliia Batenkova, who won six medals in Sochi including one gold. "Crimea is my motherland, where I was born, and of course I worry about it. I want peace."
Ukraine Paralympic Committee President Valeriy Sushkevych on Sunday decried what he called Russian "aggression" in his country and said hoped that Putin "recognizes the danger of what we call war."
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 hotspot will override the current diplomatic tensions.
"The new Russia is a Russia that is capable of carrying out large-scale projects, capable of creating modern infrastructure in a record short timescale, both in terms of sports and the rest of society," Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak told The Associated Press in Sochi. "The new Russia is a Russia that open to the whole world."
That's the impression some visitors had after the high-profile Winter Olympics — but it could be a rapidly shifting vision.
"I think (the Olympics) did improve the image (of Russia)," Martin Sorrell, CEO of global advertising giant WPP, said in an interview in Sochi. "But now you have this controversy over Ukraine, Crimea, and that's driving a lot of the perception."
But the world cannot afford to ostracize Putin, Sorrell said, especially with domestic polls that indicate Putin's popularity has risen as a result of the games that are the centerpiece of his third term as president.
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