Why the World Cup is Exactly What the Kremlin Needs

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Written by William McHenry

Russia is back in the headlines—again—as it hosts the World Cup, but for the first time in nearly a decade news about the country is overwhelmingly positive. Given Russia’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine, and the alleged use of a chemical agent in an assassination attempt in the United Kingdom, Moscow was in dire need of a public relations boost, and the World Cup will likely provide a temporary bump to Russia’s international reputation as it has for many former host countries. Nevertheless, the critical questions are: can hosting produce the same positive public diplomatic results as it has for other authoritarian countries, and could the World Cup mark the end of Russia’s diplomatic isolation?

Throughout modern history, authoritarian states—such as Russia under President Putin—have hosted international sporting competitions to re-cast the world’s image of their rule in a favorable light. The 2008 Olympics in Beijing is an excellent example of this propaganda phenomenon. The Chinese Communist Party used the Olympics as an opportunity to display China’s growing wealth and infrastructure development; while, glossing over systematic issues such as pollution and human rights abuses. Conversely, hosting these sorts of events have become less popular in democratic countries, because the residents of potential hosts cities and countries have come to realize the immense financial burden building sports infrastructure places on their governments.

Authoritarian countries have, through a combination of bribery and the aforementioned reluctance of democracies, secured the hosting rights for a series of these events. Qatar is slated to host the 2022 World Cup, Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, and Russia recently hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, and, although those games were replete with corruption, they did succeed in marginally boosting Russia’s image abroad.

However, any goodwill generated by the 2014 Sochi Olympics was soon lost after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and the Russian military’s connection to the downing of the Malaysian civilian airliner in eastern Ukraine later that year. In a similar sense, the Russian World Cup has been a vehicle for corrupt schemes, but there is little doubt Russia is more isolated from the international community now than it was in 2014.

This time, instead of engaging in further destabilizing foreign policy behavior, Moscow will attempt to use the World Cup to demonstrate that Russia can be a responsible stakeholder in the international community. To this end, Russia has suppressed local violent hooliganism, embraced foreign fans, and honored shared historical memories with international soccer delegations. Russia has also removed many travel restrictions for foreign fans to visit Russia for the tournament.

Looking towards the future, Tom Wright a scholar at the Brookings Institution has speculated Putin will use the positive momentum of the World Cup to invite U.S. President Donald Trump the World Cup’s final game. Putin could be seeking to capitalize on recent comments made by Trump who stated Russia should be re-admitted to the G7 group of nations after its expulsion from the organization for annexing Crimea. Although, it is improbable Russia will be re-admitted to the G7 anytime soon, hosting the World Cup has, thus far, provided Russia with a vital and timely public diplomatic windfall.

For instance, in a recent meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and President Putin, Bolton congratulated Putin on Russia’s performance as a host by saying he looked forward to “hearing about how you [Putin] handled the World Cup so successfully.” This is a rare recent case of a senior US official praising Russia for its behavior. Moreover, during this meeting, both sides agreed on organizing the first official summit between Putin and Trump in Helsinki. Although, it remains unlikely Trump will visit Russia during the World Cup, because of the domestic political backlash he would face from his political rivals.

To be sure, hosting this tournament will not solve any of the significant issues which isolated Russia in the first place. The Russian military remains involved in intractable conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and the United States and much of Europe remain at odds with Russia over its political and cyber intrusions into their respective elections. Nevertheless, Russia leveraging the spectacle of the World Cup to re-establish a modicum of respect within the international community.

About the author: William McHenry is an Eastern Europe & Eurasia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is the Program Associate for The Program on New Approaches to Research and Security in Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia).

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