Putin is the real winner from the World Cup in Russia
Thursday 05/July/2018 - 11:18 AM
THE World Cup is gearing up to be more difficult to predict than expected. As we head into the quarterfinals، only three of the eight remaining teams are currently ranked in the top 10 of FIFA’s rankings — surprisingly including Russia. But one thing’s for certain: Vladimir Putin is the real winner of the Cup. In a speech to his country’s police force earlier in the year، Mr Putin said Russia must “ensure maximum security for players and fans”. “The way this event goes and our country’s image will directly depend on your smooth، skilful work،” he said. In the lead-up to the event، many commentators noted that the choice of host country would serve to normalise Russia and the Kremlin — and hopefully lead people to cast a blind eye on its tumultuous decade of poor politics. “Putin needed the World Cup mainly for domestic purposes، and I think it will serve him well in that sense،” Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told the Associated Press in early June. “The World Cup takes his approval rating up، because most people like watching football. Albeit a short-lived one، it will nonetheless be a distraction from the post-Soviet reality.” Writing in Spectator earlier this year، British journalist Owen Matthews said hosting the 2018 World Cup offered Vladimir Putin a chance to show off Russia’s “new-found greatness” and “continued membership of the civilised world”.
“For what Putin yearns for، above all، is respect، a place at the table of great nations، and recognition from the world that Russia is no longer a poor، dysfunctional collapsed empire but once again a superpower،” he writes. In other words، being chosen to host the World Cup validates Russia — and Mr Putin’s authoritarian regimen. Matthews described the World Cup as “the Kremlin’s big chance for attempting to re-set the world’s bad opinion of Russia”. So with the quarter-finals about to get underway، how has the World Cup affected Russia as a state? Former US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and co-operation in Europe، Daniel Baer، described Moscow’s role in the World Cup as “another of Putin’s vanity projects”، arguing it allowed the Russian leader to distract the world from his country’s economic hardships and socially repressive policies. His main task in his third term has been improving Russia’s reputation on the world stage، and he will use his success in hosting the World Cup to pursue further goals. “As the non-stop coverage of the World Cup comes to a close، Putin will find himself once again basking in the afterglow and looking for new opportunities to exercise Russian power globally،” Baer wrote in Foreign Policyearlier this week. We’re already seeing evidence of this. A Kremlin spokesman recently confirmed the Russian leader will likely meet Donald Trump in private during their upcoming summit in Helsinki. No notes، no official records، no witnesses.The big question on everybody’s mind is the threat Moscow potentially holds over the US President، amid ongoing evidence of extensive ties between Moscow and the Trump family، which may have influenced the result of the 2016 election campaign. Like Mr Trump’s Singapore summit — which some experts argued served to validate Kim Jong-un’s brutal dictatorship — there is now a question over whether Mr Trump’s secret meeting with Mr Putin will have a similar effect. As Baer notes، Mr Trump is more than likely to hail the meeting as a success، regardless of how it actually pans out in private، because — as Mr Putin is well aware — “Trump’s first concern will be not being seen as a loser”. A win for the Russian leader appears to be foolproof. Yet Russia’s hosting status does not change the list of deeds tied to the country over the past decade. Inside sport، there was its notorious state-sponsored doping program، which involved swapping urine samples through a hole in the wall of the anti-doping laboratory at the 2014 Sochi Games. Outside of sport، there is a long list of misdeeds that compromised Russia’s reputation on the world stage: the annexation of Crimea; the conclusion by investigators that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by the Russian military in 2014 and expelling 755 US diplomats in response to the US approving sanctions against Russia last year. Add to that list: attempting to tamper with the 2016 US election and interfering with the western democratic process; intervening in the Syrian civil war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad; the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the UK، for which the Kremlin was blamed; and human rights abuses against its own citizens، particularly the LGBT community. Why are these things relevant? Because the World Cup has allowed the Russian leader to distract the world from this long list of atrocities — which Moscow has consistently and continues to deny responsibility for. Billions of people have tuned in around the world to watch the event taking place. Whether it was worth the moral price is another question altogether.