Written by J.Hawk exclusively for SouthFront
The 2018 World Cup is the first major global sporting event held in Russia since the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Like the Olympics, which coincided with the Ukrainian Maidan coup d’etat, Crimea’s secession, and subsequent civil war in Ukraine, the World Cup was heavily politicized. In both instances efforts to discredit Russia and, in the case of World Cup, to even deprive it of the right to host it, were part of Western powers arsenal of hostile actions intended to bring about its political and economic collapse.
But while there are similarities between the two events, there are also major differences which show just how much the world has changed during the four years which have passed. In 2014, Western powers self-confidence exuded during the Ukraine coup suggested that a regime change in Ukraine would have a suitable “domino effect” on Russia—the harsh rhetoric aimed at the government of Vladimir Putin and Dmitriy Medvedev was indicative of their expectation there soon be a more amenable group of people in the Kremlin. By the time of the World Cup, that expectation has evaporated. There are no more headlines predicting Russian collapse “in the next 6 months”. What is more, whereas Sochi took place when West-Russia relations were still relatively good, World Cup began after four years of intense information warfare waged against Russia.
In practical terms it meant foreign visitors, particularly ones coming from NATO countries, to Sochi did not encounter the jarring disconnect between what their government officials and mainstream media were telling them and the reality of life in Russia. It is for that reason so many governments, while abstaining from an official boycott of the games, nevertheless sought to dissuade their citizens from attending the games by a variety of “softer” measures, such as issuing travel advisories warning of crime, unrest, and even terrorism in Russia, which actually experiences fewer acts of terrorism than many Western European countries and is not the world’s ground zero for mass shootings like the United States. The efforts to promote an unofficial boycott of the World Cup did have some success, in the sense that they depressed the attendance from some countries—there are reports of large numbers of tickets for England matches being unsold. However, those who did attend were nearly unanimous in recognizing the yawning gap between Western propaganda and Russian reality. The World Cup did become that which NATO’s neocons feared: a chance for Russia to break through the information blockade and present itself to the world. It remains to be seen what effect this fact will have on foreign policies of their respective countries. However, given Russia’s success at presenting itself as an essentially normal country populated with normal people, it’s rather less likely Western leaders, intelligence services, and compliant media will be able to spin outlandish conspiracy theories implicating Russia in all manner of crimes without a greater push-back from the readers.
There are already indications the World Cup is having a political effect. After all, it was only to be expected for European leaders whose teams are doing particularly well to seek the reflected glory of their players by actually going to Russia and cheering on their compatriots. The first European leader to break Russia’s “isolation” was Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović who attended her country’s game with the host team and presumably will make another appearance should that team continue to advance. Nor did she confine her visit to Russia solely to sports. Her activities included paying respects to the World War 2-era Red Army and meeting with Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev, with whom she moreover shared a box during the game. Croatia’s victory was marred by one of its players celebrating the victory with a “Glory to Ukraine” cheer which led to him being expelled from the World Cup by the Croatian Football Federation.
Europe’s “heavyweights” will be represented by France’s Emmanuel Macron who will attend the France-Belgium semi-final. It remains to be seen what, if any, representation Great Britain will send in recognition of England’s rather better than expected showing at the World Cup. Sadly and unfortunately predictably, the British opponents of Russia-West rapprochement have raised their heads again, when a pair of British citizens were admitted to a hospital in Amesbury with signs of a chemical poisoning. Even though at first they were diagnosed as suffering from Fentanyl overdose, the British powers-that-be quickly decided to revive the Skripal poisoning canard and attribute this incident to miraculously undegraded Novichok left over from the supposed poisoning of the Skripals. Given the need to appear “tough on Russia”, Angela Merkel must be secretly relieved that her country’s team suffered an early elimination. Likewise the US neocons must be celebrating the fact their national team failed to qualify for the games altogether.
As luck would have it, the World Cup will coincide with a NATO summit which will no doubt produce a few headlines of its own, given Donald Trump’s stated goal of compelling its member states to buy more US weapons and make fewer claims on the US military, and with the Putin-Trump summit that will occur shortly after the World Cup concludes. Such a meeting was unthinkable after the Sochi Olympics. Western leaders, Barack Obama not least among them, did not believe they had any need to negotiate or consult with their Russian counterparts. Four years later, the 2018 World Cup demonstrated beyond any doubt Russia weathered the storm of sanctions and political pressure with flying colors.