World News

Amid the World Cup, Vladimir Putin scores some diplomatic goals

Posted June 19, 2018 11:27 a.m. EDT

— The Kremlin may be locked in confrontation with the West, but the rest of the world is coming to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is hosting the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and Putin is scoring important diplomatic points. World leaders have been making their way to Moscow for the games, raising Putin's stature and putting Russia at the center of the geopolitical action.

The kickoff game between Saudi Arabia and Russia was a case in point: Putin played host to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of the first match on June 14. The Saudi side lost 5-0 to Russia, but the Kremlin leader and the Crown Prince used the visit to underscore their close cooperation to bolster global oil prices.

Putin's World Cup charm offensive continued this week. UN Secretary-General António Guterres travelled to Russia to meet Putin and attend a World Cup soccer match between Portugal and Morocco on Tuesday. And Putin will host South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a three-day visit beginning Thursday, fresh on the heels of the unprecedented talks between US President Donald Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.

Moon will give a speech at Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament, then go to the southern city of Rostov to catch the Korea-Mexico World Cup game.

A long time since Sochi

It's a page out of Putin's playbook for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, an event also meant to showcase Russia's confident return to the world stage. But there's a critical difference with this year: During the Sochi Olympics, Russia was a paid-up member of the international community. That ended just days after the closing ceremony, when Russian special forces seized government buildings in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, propelling the annexation of the territory by Russia from Ukraine and bringing Russia under Western sanctions.

Relations between the West and Russia have remained rocky since then. The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in eastern Ukraine, accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and the nerve agent attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury have all contributed to a poisonous atmosphere between Moscow and Western capitals, as have the conflicts in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Leaders from the US and Western Europe have been conspicuously absent at Putin's World Cup.

But that hasn't kept the foreign visitors away from Russia. In fact, the largest number of World Cup tickets outside Russia have been sold in the US, according to FIFA. And the presence of thousands of foreign fans celebrating, cheering and drinking on the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities sends a powerful visual message: Russia welcomes the world with open arms, and is not isolated.

A boost at home, too

Such fanfare around the World Cup gives Putin cover on domestic issues as well.

On the tournament's opening day, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced changes to Russia's pension system: gradually lifting the country's standard retirement age to 63 from 55 for women and to 65 from 60 for men.

That's an extremely controversial move in a country where many people depend on state-sector employment, and build their expectations around a system of social benefits inherited from the Soviet Union. And the proposal gave Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny a new occasion to challenge the Kremlin: On Tuesday, he called for protests in 20 cities around Russia on July 1 over the proposed pension changes.

"Let's be honest: an increase in the retirement age, initiated by Putin and Medvedev, is a real crime," Navalny wrote on Instagram. "The plain robbery of several tens of millions of people under the guise of 'overdue reform.' We will protest against this with all our strength and we call on you to as well."

Even then, the opposition leader is careful not to get in the way of Russia's World Cup fever. Navalny said the offices of his organization filed notice for rallies only in cities where World Cup games are not taking place.