November 17, 2017

To the aggressor, the laurels: Russia 2018 and Western complicity in Putin’s propaganda

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The most egregious aspect of this whole sordid episode is that Russia 2018 will be the first time the World Cup finals will be hosted by a country that is under sanctions for invading a neighbor.

As new crises arise with the frequency and intensity of early autumn’s Atlantic hurricanes, the international community must not be distracted from pre-existing problems. North Korea, in particular, may pose an existential threat in its neighborhood and beyond, while ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and the Kurdish and Catalan referenda could still ignite serious tensions. Yet, as U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence recently reiterated, Russia continues to undermine its neighbors’ sovereignty. The Kremlin shows no signs of a serious commitment to its obligations regarding Ukraine.

In short, Russia remains a very real revisionist threat to the international order.

Sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and direct military intervention in eastern Ukraine remain in place. The international community continues to try to identify additional sanctions to deter further Russian aggression and as an instrument to compel Russia to take seriously its Minsk obligations. Unfortunately, the West seems to have ignored a genuine opportunity to employ some further, novel sanctions against Moscow.

On December 1, the draw will be held in Moscow to decide which Russian cities will host the qualifying teams in next year’s World Cup soccer finals. The event will effectively mark the point of no return for the hosting of the world’s premier sporting event.

It is of course the prerogative of soccer’s world governing body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), to decide who hosts its flagship event. FIFA is an organization with special status under Swiss law. It has an acute, almost neuralgic, aversion to external meddling in its affairs and trumpets with an almost missionary fervor its goal to use soccer as an instrument to promote good will and harmony among an ever-expanding “football family.”

However, FIFA has shown no reluctance to intervene in national politics for its own purposes. For example, in 2010 it threatened to relocate the championship from South Africa if the host refused to alter its judicial and legal systems to protect the commercial prerogatives of its principal sponsors. In 2014 Brazil was “asked,” among other things, to amend legislation for disabled spectators in order to maximize FIFA’s revenue. Host countries even waive tax obligations for FIFA, often in the face of substantial local opposition. Such is the prestige – and price – associated with hosting the World Cup finals. But even FIFA’s messianism has its limits. FIFA’s most notable political intervention has been to allow Israel to play its World Cup qualifying games as a European nation, thus foregoing a very obvious opportunity to apply Dr. Soccer’s curative elixir to Arab-Israeli relations.

Having just emerged from a sordid corruption scandal and with the new president, Gianni Infantino, reforming the organization with the enthusiasm of a man charged with painting the Brooklyn Bridge with a toothbrush, FIFA is working very closely with Russia to ensure that next year’s show will go on regardless of concerns over the host nation’s suitability to host the event.

For example, FIFA has officially admitted that it was fully aware that Russia was using North Korean forced labor to complete the infrastructure in time for 2018. FIFA has also shown little concern about allegations that Russian soccer has apparently been no less immune to the industrial-scale, government-sanctioned doping that so thoroughly discredited Russian athletics and led to very real sanctions from other sporting federations.

FIFA has – and is – investing substantial resources that appear to allow Moscow to plug gaps in its budget for Russia 2018. For example, FIFA’s financial report for 2016, issued in May of this year, reveals that in its budget cycle for 2015-2018 a total of $627 million (32 percent of the total FIFA budget for Russia 2018) is allocated for “local organization” – a category with no further explanation in an otherwise detailed breakdown of the budget pie.

Under normal circumstances, supplementing budgetary shortfalls would not raise eyebrows. But in the context of Russia’s current foreign policy, FIFA could unwittingly be helping Moscow to maintain funding levels for its military operations in Ukraine and its aggressive propaganda campaign against both the international community and its own population. Add the money to be spent by up to a million tourists and at least 12 Russian local economies will also receive quite a boost, courtesy of the West. (Don’t even ask if anyone cares enough to protest that one of the host cities is Rostov – the major staging point for Russian military operations in southeastern Ukraine.)

Absurdly, the international community seems perfectly willing to allow FIFA to proceed with Russia 2018. It’s as if the more than 10,000 deaths, the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, the subsequent international sanctions and concern over Russian broader intentions have nothing to do with the host country and that the World Cup is going to be held in some other dimension – perhaps that “other world” German Chancellor Angela Merkel thought President Vladimir Putin inhabited when she spoke with him following Russia’s invasion of Crimea. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, arguing it was simply a province of Iraq, the response was Operation Desert Storm. When Russia invaded Crimea under the same pretext, the international community replied with sanctions – and total indifference to Russia’s fitness to stage world soccer’s show-piece event.

Inexplicably, at a time when the international community is concerned about Mr. Putin’s revisionist activity to the point where sanctions have been imposed and with the leader of the Third Rome struggling to provide his population with bread (pensions, etc.), that very same international community is helping him to organize circuses – in the shape of literally the Greatest Show on Earth. Perhaps nothing better should be expected from an organization as disreputable as FIFA. But given Russia’s challenge to the international order, the most egregious aspect of this whole sordid episode is that Russia 2018 will be the first time the World Cup finals will be hosted by a country that is under sanctions for invading a neighbor.

Relocating the competition is still not impossible. From a logistical perspective, previous contingency plans for an event of such magnitude required approximately six months. Why, then, is an international community concerned by continuing Russian aggression in all of its hybrid forms allowing FIFA to lend this level of credibility and prestige to the Putin regime?

From FIFA’s perspective, the issue might well be one of sunk costs. As regards the international community, the answer might be depressingly banal. Thinking outside of the box does not come easily to a diplomatic and political community operating on rules for which Mr. Putin has shown he clearly has little respect. There seems to be a sense that soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is beneath the purview – even respectability – of traditional diplomacy. Soccer is for the masses with nothing to contribute, even under extraordinary circumstances, to the rarified conventions of international diplomacy. This is a totally misguided view.

Divesting Russia of next year’s World Cup should have been a priority in the international community’s arsenal for dealing with Mr. Putin’s challenge. Nor should it have been viewed in isolation. Other international sporting events should not be held in Russia until the situation in eastern Ukraine and Crimea is not simply regulated but resolved. A universal sporting ban should preferably have been imposed at the initiative of the respective governing international bodies. But governments should have been prepared to act. The countries that imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and businesses were obliged to intervene in the affairs of FIFA. As the recent U.S.- and Swiss-led anti-corruption moves against FIFA showed, FIFA and its leadership are not untouchable denizens of some sporting Olympus.

Make no mistake: soccer is immensely popular in Russia, and there is understandably great pride among the population at large that the World Cup finals are being held there. Perhaps being sensitive to how much hosting the World Cup means to the Putin regime made some governments reluctant to further “provoke” or “annoy” Moscow regarding Ukraine in the conviction that Russia still has a role to play in, for example, mediating the North Korean crisis. Yet, Syria revealed that cooperation with the Putin regime is not symbiotic but parasitic, with the current occupants of the Kremlin having their own, very idiosyncratic interpretation of events and their resolution.

Depriving Russia of the World Cup would not have been the “nuclear option” of excluding Russia from the SWIFT inter-bank payments mechanism, talk of which angered Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev into threatening an all-out Russian response (whatever that meant). But for the ordinary soccer- and sport-obsessed Russian it would come a very close second.

Hosting the event will provide grist for the very Russian propaganda mill whose output continues to be of such concern to the international community. The Putin regime is not indifferent to public opinion. It devotes great resources to understanding trends and then neutralizing or manipulating them for the regime’s purposes. If Mr. Putin is not as popular as some Western and Russian observers believe, then the international community should have grasped the opportunity to test the depth of this support by depriving Russia of the World Cup. Explaining why the World Cup was lost would tax the creativity of even the Kremlin propaganda machine – especially in a Russian presidential election year.

If politics is the art of the possible, then diplomacy is the art of international politics at its most cautious – understandably so, given the stakes. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” Diplomats and politicians are no different, even though they are all too often loath to admit it.

Circumstances handed the West a genuine opportunity to hit the Russian population where it hurts – and at no cost to itself. Straining to cope with Mr. Putin’s assault on reality through unconventional means, the West’s reaction instead brings to mind George Orwell’s observation that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Allowing Russia 2018 to proceed as scheduled, especially in a presidential election year, makes the international community complicit in Mr. Putin’s propaganda campaign (especially as regards its principal, domestic, audience) and deprives an increasingly vocal opposition of a substantive issue with which to broaden its appeal. Unfortunately, it is not only Mr. Putin who appears to be living in another world.


Markian Bilynskyj is vice-president/director of field operations of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation.

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