On June 14, the World Cup started 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.

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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.

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)

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.