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Russia redux: World Cup brings Putin a long-awaited chance to show a softer side

Eric Adelson
Columnist

There was a time not too long ago when it seemed like sport might bring Russia and the West closer together. It was 2014, and Russian president Vladimir Putin spent more than $50 billion to welcome the world to Sochi for the Olympics. His nation got some worldwide ribbing for its missing shower curtains and broken doorknobs, but the Games were safe and largely smooth. The Closing Ceremony even poked fun at the famous missing Olympic ring from the Opening night. It was a pleasant if not perfect fortnight.

“It showed the Russians were human beings,” says Russia expert Mark Galeotti. “One could see a different tone in the international coverage.”

It didn’t last.

As the Games wound down, unrest in Ukraine ramped up. Russia invaded Crimea, the U.S. followed with sanctions soon after, and the fallout continues today. Russia is blamed for everything from colluding with the Trump campaign to interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections to a widespread doping scandal to hacking Serena Williams. Putin, who is as good at playing the victim as he is at being the aggressor, feels unjustly slighted for events that he owns little or no responsibility for. Both nations agree that relations are poor, perhaps as poor as ever.

And now the sporting world is returning to Russia for the World Cup.

(Getty)

There are already signs of impending trouble. Just last month, FIFA announced disciplinary proceedings against the Russian Football Union following racist chants at a March match in St. Petersburg. The charges of racism have bubbled for so long that five years ago, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure called for a boycott by black players of the World Cup. Russia’s record on gay rights and domestic violence is not admirable either.

There’s more intrigue outside the stadiums. After a Russian spy was poisoned in England, leaders of the Iceland delegation announced they would not be attending the soccer tournament out of protest. One elected official in Britain predicted Putin would use the World Cup “the way Hitler used the 1936 Olympics.” ISIS has quite different ideas, threatening an attack as an act of revenge for backing Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

So the tournament has the potential to be besotted by turmoil. (An aside: the author of the notorious Steele Dossier, Christopher Steele, earned some of his credibility by investigating FIFA corruption during the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid processes.) And Putin’s us-against-the-world mentality has years’ worth of ammunition.

The World Cup is no small thing for the newly reelected Putin. He’s basically a king politically, despite grumbles from the plebes, and he’s wildly rich. We all hope there is no imminent war to win, so this gathering is a way to score points in the so-called “hot peace.”

“In the current global environment, this is a way for Putin to show the globe he’s part of the mainstream,” says Galeotti, author of The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. “He wants to show it’s all very well for Washington and London to be critical, but the world still comes to Russia.”

(Illustration via Amber Matsumoto)

If the event is a warm display of hospitality, the possible takeaway is that maybe the Russian leader isn’t so bad after all. This strategy worked rather well for rogue state North Korea in February’s Olympics, as Kim Jong-un piggybacked host country South Korea (at no cost), hogged some of the spotlight, and displayed a seeming willingness to rejoin the rest of the world. It was sport-as-propaganda at its finest, and Putin got his own last laugh when his hockey team won gold and sung the national anthem even under the cloud of a doping ban.

Russia will not win this tournament, though. The nation isn’t so great at soccer. That puts a little more pressure for the host country to claim victory in other ways.

“This is a massive vanity project,” Galeotti says. “It is not on balance going to be a money-maker for the Russian state. This is the kind of thing, when no one can stop you from the presidency, where it’s ‘What do you get for the guy who has everything?’”

A triumph this summer will be a little tougher to earn than during the Sochi Games, which were relatively short and confined to the shores of the Black Sea. The Olympics media don’t usually roam around beyond the venues and housing complexes. The World Cup media, however, will be strewn across the nation. They will be broadcasting their experiences on social media more so than in 2014. Control will be tougher to maintain. And even that control can become a story: the culling of stray dogs in the weeks leading up to the Olympics turned into a PR nightmare for the host country.

“If when people think of the World Cup in Russia they think of boycotts or a team that decides to wave gay rights flag or people being hospitalized – if that’s the story, the Russians have wasted their money and Putin wasted his,” Galeotti says.

That said, there is a huge possible payoff. Russia still has a glorious culture, a rich history and a fascinating story. Some of the host cities were hidden away under the cloak of the Soviet Union and will be new to foreigners. Russia is far more than oil and gas, oligarchs, and the Kremlin. So for the benefit of tourism and simple pride, a Russia that seems reborn and no longer “Soviet” is exactly what Putin wants to show the world.

“I think Putin is a genuine nationalist, a patriot,” Galeotti says. “He wants to be the president who Made Russia Great Again.”

Now is his golden chance.

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