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A Chance for Putin to Woo the World, Thanks to Soccer and Trump

MOSCOW — Back when it sought the right to host the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament, Russia framed its bid as part of a concerted effort to transform its post-Soviet self into a modern, model global citizen.

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Russia Wants to Play Nice With Foreigners. Just Not too Nice.
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MOSCOW — Back when it sought the right to host the 2018 World Cup soccer tournament, Russia framed its bid as part of a concerted effort to transform its post-Soviet self into a modern, model global citizen.

A female Olympic poll vault champion wooed the International Football Association by urging it to “help shape the future of Russia,” while a deputy prime minister said holding the championship would speed his country toward becoming “a completely different nation” whose people “will be brothers and sisters to the whole family of the world.”

That was in December 2010.

Then Russia proved that it harbored a rather different idea of brotherhood: annexing Crimea, backing a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine, providing the missile battery that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and propping up a bloody dictator, Bashar Assad, in Syria. Various Kremlin critics abroad died or fell ill under mysterious circumstances, while scores of activists at home were either jailed or their organizations were shuttered. Russia made “gay propaganda” illegal and weaponized social media to meddle in Western elections.

In short, when President Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, he abandoned the quest for admission to the global fraternity of dominant states. Instead, he contrived to seize a spot through his own devices.

“We are not aspiring to be a globalized nation, that is gone,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign policy analyst, “Russia’s foreign policy strategy is to be a cat who walks by himself.”

Russia still feels compelled, however, to try repeatedly to prove that it has great-power credibility. It cannot do it militarily — short of flexing its nuclear weapons — nor financially after four years of drifting in economic irons despite a recent buoyancy in oil prices. Major sporting events offer one plausible substitute, including the World Cup, which begins Thursday.

Events like the Sochi Winter Games and the World Cup cast Russia in the role of a global power, which helps to foster national pride and to defuse the notion that the West has isolated Russia through international sanctions, diplomatic expulsions and other measures prompted by recent events.

“There are not so many clubs of which Russia is a member,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin consultant. “We are going through a period of isolation, and it is important for Russia to show that we are still members of the club of big powers.” Or, at least, that Russia should be a member.

Major sporting events also reflect Putin’s image of Russia and, to a certain extent, of himself. “This demonstration of strength, of power, of collective success is important to him,” said Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, an independent polling organization.

In that respect, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi did not quite work as envisioned. Western leaders stayed away, and Russia’s record medal haul was later diminished later by indications of a state-sponsored doping program.

The World Cup offers another chance.

The strains between the United States and Europe over trade, which erupted at the G-7 summit in Canada last week, just days before the tournament’s scheduled start, are an added bonus.

That fiasco, combined with President Donald Trump’s assertion just before the meeting that Russia be readmitted to what had been the G-8 before its expulsion following Crimea, may have spawned the best opening for the Kremlin in years, despite unresolved wars in Ukraine and Syria.

Populist leaders in power in Greece, Hungary, Italy and Austria have all made overtures to Putin. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France both visited Russia in May to discuss salvaging the Iran deal, among other issues.

“It is the most beneficial international situation for Russia right now since 2013, on the eve of the Olympics,” Frolov said.

Asked last week about tensions between European countries and the United States, Putin took an I-told-you-so attitude, saying that he had long warned European leaders about the United States spreading its jurisdiction abroad through sanctions and other measures.

“Our partners apparently thought that they would never be affected by this counterproductive policy,” said Putin, gloating somewhat. No European leaders “wanted to listen, and nobody did anything to stem this trend. So there you are.”

Lately, Putin has sought to cast Russia as Europe’s reliable friend.

“Putin does not think that he needs to change anything,” Frolov said. “Trump’s decision relieved the pressure to change.”

There are scattered international efforts to maintain some pressure on Russia during the World Cup. Human Rights Watch has called on world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony unless Russia acts to protect Syrian civilians. Some European lawmakers also called for a boycott, linking it to the March poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, which they called the most recent example of “Putin’s mockery of our European values.”

The families of 40 Australians killed aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 wrote an open letter saying that recent revelations about a Russian military unit firing the fatal missile cast a “dark shadow” over the World Cup.

However, Putin is popular in parts of the world for standing up to the United States, so a successful championship could bring Russia a pronounced soft power payoff.

One tournament slogan — “Russia Never Sleeps” — will please some hard-partying soccer fans, and Moscow in particular is in the midst of a more-than-$3 billion makeover to widen sidewalks, plant trees, and provide services like rental scooters and signage for its palatial subway system. Those signs will be translated into Roman letters, for the first time.

In cities with less money, in the tradition of Potemkin villages, the roads to World Cup stadiums have been repaved and the buildings repainted, while those a block away remain in various states of decay.

Although the United States team did not qualify, more Americans bought tickets than anybody except the Russians — more than 86,000. On the home front, Putin, who just began his fourth term as president, has tried to forge a national sense of unity and purpose atop nostalgia for Soviet achievements. The victory in World War II is the centerpiece, but the Soviet sports machine also comes into play, sports being a noncontroversial arena where everyone in an ethnically mixed population can celebrate together.

“This fits into the whole tradition of totalitarian mass events, parades, collective celebrations of sporting events,” Gudkov said. The video used to introduce the World Cup poster deployed a few Soviet clichés, for example, including a soccer ball that transforms into a model of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth.

When Russia was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics, Putin called it the world’s judgment on Russia, suggesting that only a global power could organize such an event. Holding the World Cup inspires a similar calculus, especially after an investigation by FIFA, the international football association, cleared Russia of bribing its way to the role.

“That is the main consideration for the Kremlin — the ability to handle an international event here is almost like winning a small war,” Pavlovsky said. “For the Kremlin group, scale is very important. The greater the scale of an event, the more powerful the authorities seem to be.” There is also, inevitably, a bread and circus factor.

The tournament will distract, at least temporarily, ordinary Russians, who have suffered economically in recent years and face a bleak future. It will also line the pockets of well-connected tycoons who milk government infrastructure projects. The cost of the games, spread over 11 cities with new or refurbished stadiums, roads and other infrastructure, mushroomed from an initial estimate of around $640 million to some $11 billion.

“He needs to feed his court, otherwise they will be hungry and might eat him one day,” Pavlovsky said.

Finally, it cannot be ignored that Putin loves sports. He learned to play hockey after becoming president, and has been photographed regularly swimming or more infamously, riding horseback bare-chested. Holding the tournament will promote sports and fitness among all Russians, he has said, and perhaps foster more promising soccer teams.

Even the president admits that Russia is not a global soccer power. The current national team is considered particularly bad, coming 70th in the FIFA rankings. No country holding the World Cup has ever ranked so low.

Putin is trying to appear philosophical about it. Asked recently who might win, he responded, “the organizers.”

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