By Arab News
By Andrew Hammond*
Thursday sees the kick-off of the Russia-hosted soccer World Cup, one of the globe’s two biggest sporting events alongside the Olympics. Recently re-elected President Vladimir Putin is determined that the tournament will enhance the nation’s international reputation and be part of his eventual political legacy, but key controversies and risks surround the event.
As with the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, Putin has overseen massive investment in infrastructure for the World Cup, with a forecast $11 billion spent on stadiums and upgrades to airports and transit in 11 Russian cities, from the Baltic Sea port of Kaliningrad to Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains. This underlines that infrastructure spending is a key priority for Putin’s new term of presidential office and the $11 billion adds to the estimated $51 billion spent in Sochi that made it easily the most expensive Winter Games in history, and more than five times as costly as the London 2012 Summer Olympics.
While hosting such major contests commands national prestige, as Putin is well aware, they therefore require huge operating costs to run them and maintain security, plus wider political risks and controversies too. For instance, when Russia was awarded the hosting of the World Cup in 2010, it was not as politically and economically isolated from the West as it is today, despite gambits such as its 2008 invasion of Georgia.
In 2010, then-Prime Minister Putin said that he wanted the World Cup to showcase his country at its best. Yet, fast-forward to 2018 and Russia, following the 2014 annexation of Ukraine (which happened soon after the Sochi Games) and subsequent tensions there, is excluded from the G8. There has also been a string of more recent controversies, including its backing for the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria; its alleged involvement in the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England; and its presumed meddling in a series of Western elections, including the 2016 US presidential ballot.
In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, numerous senior Western politicians called for FIFA to review its awarding of the hosting of the World Cup to Russia — a decision that was subsequently investigated by the FBI after allegations of irregularities and corruption in the process. Separately, in the wake of the recent chemical weapon attack in England, Russia has been subject to a series of new Western sanctions and diplomatic expulsions.
Moreover, more than 60 members of the European Parliament have signed a letter calling on EU leaders to back a UK political boycott of the tournament. The latter will mean no British ministers or diplomats will attend to try and avoid Putin basking in the glory of the World Cup in what Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said could be the same way Adolf Hitler did at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
This UK stance mirrors the decisions of numerous world leaders in 2014, including then-US President Barack Obama, to decline to attend Sochi, partly for human rights reasons, including Russia’s then-new homosexuality law. This anti-gay stance — part of Putin’s populist political agenda of defending what he views as traditional family values — remains contentious with many internationally.
In this tricky diplomatic context, Putin wishes to convey to a big global audience that Russia remains a major power, and that Western attempts to sideline and isolate it are failing. This core theme of seeking global prestige and respect was central to his re-election campaign, tapping into the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, and building upon his mission since assuming power from Boris Yeltsin of trying to restore Russia’s geopolitical prominence.
Moreover, with Putin now at the start of what he has said will be his final six-year presidential term, he is thinking much more about his legacy accomplishments as prime minister and president from 2000 to 2024. Extraordinarily, this is a longer period at the top than all of the Soviet Union’s supreme leaders, except Joseph Stalin.
Unquestionably, Putin sees the hosting of the World Cup as a key part of his accomplishments. He perceives this as sitting alongside not just Sochi and big infrastructure projects like the construction of a bridge to the Crimean peninsula, but also wider geopolitical plays like Crimea’s annexation and Russia’s increased significance internationally, including in the Middle East through his strong support for Assad’s regime.
Taken overall, significant risks and controversies remain for Russia in hosting the World Cup, but Putin will to try to ride these out in a bid to see his international standing and reputation enhanced by a successful tournament. If this happens, the tournament could prove a key moment in his attempts to build his political legacy while also consolidating domestic support for the remainder of his presidency.
*Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics