Will the World Cup see Putin in the net?

Column On June 14 the World Cup starts in 11 cities in Russia. It's about sports, money, prestige, security and corruption. But if all goes smoothly, it might be a win-win for East and West, says our columnist Mark Galeotti.  Putin can show that Russia has soft power. The West can show that not all westerners are Russophobes.

potjomkin in kaliningradPotyomkin village: on Leninstreet in Kaliningrad, one of the soccer cities, the original German facades of former Königsberg have been especially restored for the World Cup. Inhabitants are pleased (picture Aleid Steenman)

by Mark Galeotti

For some, the World Cup is about football. For others, it is about money, patronage and geopolitics. In this context, the imminent championship in Russia may look like a win for Vladimir Putin, but might actually do some good.

Especially in the immediate aftermath of the Skripal poisoning in Britain, there was talk of a boycott, but on balance, the lack of such a move was both inevitable and probably helpful. Football is a truly global sport, and had Western countries tried to organise a boycott, they would have angered many of their own citizens but also likely failed to move many other countries, especially those with strong football traditions.

Like sanctions, boycotts are expressions of political unity and will. A half-hearted, small-scale effort, rather than punish Putin, would empower him, encouraging him that he was successfully isolating and dividing the West while allowing him to present this as a combination of Russophobic malice and abject failure.

Besides, there are specific challenges with picking the World Cup as a venue for virtue signalling. However troubling Russian interference abroad, it is no worse a human rights case than the next venue, Qatar (and in some ways distinctly freer).  More generally, at a time when the US president is happy to laud the dictator of North Korea as 'a very talented man' there would seem little mileage in trying to isolate Russia. The purpose of the sanctions regime is to demonstrate the West’s disinclination to allow various breaches of international norms to pass unpunished and slowly to move the Kremlin towards disengaging from the Donbas and – in theory, though this remains an unlikely stretch – withdrawing from the Crimea.

Just as the partial boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan failed in any way to hasten the end of that war (I once spoke to a former Soviet diplomat about the decision to withdraw – he had actually forgotten that this was the trigger for the boycott), so too it would be naïve to believe that a similar measure against the World Cup would significantly alter the Kremlin’s calculus. The guns would still roar in the Donbas, and the disinformation and cyberespionage would still stalk the infosphere.

People-to-people democracy

This is not in any way to condone or downplay Russian aggression and adventurism abroad and abuses at home. Rather, it is to note that it is not worth picking fights one will lose, and also note that that there is potential gain for the West in what otherwise looks like a Putin vanity project.

First of all, it carries risks for him. This is clearly intended as a massive exercise to generate soft power, to demonstrate that Putin’s Russia is still a global player, and for a month can be at the centre of the world’s news and the hopes, dreams and ambitions of its football fans. Furthermore, as Russian stewards and service staff are taught to smile, it is also regarded as some form of people-to-people democracy. It is about reaching out to people around the world in the hope that by giving them a good experience of the country and its citizens, they will be less supportive of anti-Kremlin rhetoric and policies at home.

Of course, even Putin’s power is limited, though. There is ample scope for mishap, from fans being ripped off by overpriced and underwhelming accommodation, to the sharper security risks. Although a massive security operation is in place, with eleven cities and twelve venues to cover, it is impossible to impose the kind of controls applied in Sochi. Fans can be scanned and IDs checked, but a terrorist could get through. Violent 'ultra' hooligans may be warned off by the security agencies, but some may not care. The Kremlin can lean on organised crime to police disorganised crime, but grifters, pickpockets, pimps and fraudsters will still ply their trades.

It would not take much to sour the whole experience, and at the same time precisely to demonstrate the limits of Putin’s power and the extent to which the most expensive World Cup in history – Russia is spending perhaps 16.5 billion euros – was less about the sport and more about the politics and embezzlement.

A soft power success

Ironically, though, there is also a risk for Putin – and an opportunity for the West – in success. Assume things go well. There are no tragedies, no disputes, no racism scandal, no embarrassments. The estimated fans go home happy, with a new insight into a Russia that turns out not to be a modern Mordor full of ranks of goose-stepping orcs, nor a shabby and impoverished post-Soviet ruin. The organisers show the kind of humanity, lightness of touch and even self-deprecating humour that was visible at the Sochi Winter Olympics at their best.

A soft power success, then. But that is only the start of it. After a rocky start, Sochi was a success in those terms, too. But any political benefits were swiftly squandered when Russia’s 'polite people' seized Crimea and went on to stir up war in the Donbas. There is the kind of durable sort power, built up over generations, that can withstand at least a certain amount of battering, but this kind is evanescent, fragile. It can be accrued in a month, but lost in an incautious day.

Of course there are other calculations. The World Cup project was an opportunity for Putin to test the loyalties of his court and reward his favourites with lucrative contracts. In an inefficient but not inconsiderable way, it provided some regional development assistance to cities that could do with it.

Yet at the same time, if Putin does accrue soft power as a result then – if he understands its limitations, which is quite a big 'if' – then it may also constrain him slightly. If you’ve spend so much money accruing something, will you lightly throw it away? He may, wrongly, believe that he can trade it for another small adventure, some intransigence in Ukraine, say, or interference in Europe. But it doesn’t work that way.

So these are the options. If things go badly, then Putin at best gains nothing, at worst loses money and face. And with no boycott, it becomes harder to blame the West. If things go well, Putin gains profile at home – not that this makes much of a difference – but also gains soft power. This, he either squanders without gain or conserves, at the cost of being a little less aggressive. And meanwhile thousands of foreign fans, while exposed to a Russian charm offensive, will also by undermining the official line that the world is full of Russophobes and NATO dupes. What’s not to like?

kaliningrad achterkant potjomkin. 2Backside of Leninstreet in soccer city Kaliningrad: the same old 'khrushevki' flats in place (picture Aleid Steenman)