The real winner of the World Cup? Vladimir Putin

The Russian president is less visible at the World Cup than at the Sochi Winter Olympics, but he is winning far more friends. 

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The World Cup may be about football, but for Russia there is a side-line offensive that’s equally, if not more, important than sporting excellence. From the outset, Vladimir Putin has not hid his desire to use this premier event to expand his country’s diplomatic relations. Now, the tournament is entering its second half, and Kremlin’s World Cup tactic is delivering the goals.

A few months before the commencement of the sporting spectacle, the world witnessed the spectre of a reawakening Cold War. The UK and its Western allies expelled scores of Russian diplomats over the Kremlin’s alleged Novichok attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Salisbury – a controversy stirred up again this week by the news that a couple in nearby Amesbury have also been hospitalised with a suspected poisoning by the same nerve agent.

Back in March, Moscow retaliated to the expulsions by in turn expelling British representatives and closing the British Council in its territory. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by comparing the World Cup in 2018 to the Nazi Olympics in 1936 and calling for potential boycotts.

The British royal families and ministers did not attend the opening ceremony, and Iceland joined the boycott. Yet, it appears that the rest of the world does not share this anti-Russian sentiment.

At the World Cup, Russia has been able to reaffirm its relationship with powerful players in the Middle East. A day before the tournament’s opening, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, travelled to Moscow to discussion oil production with President Putin – a meeting that resulted in the two sides agreeing to boost energy cooperation.

They also watched the World Cup opening match together, in which Russia beat Saudi Arabia 5-0. This might have been a humiliating moment for Saudi Arabia, yet when a midfielder Yury Gazinsky scored the first goal, Putin and Mohammed bin Salman shook hands in the VIP box. When the match ended, they joked about the result. For the two leaders, winning a friend was more significant than winning a ball game.

The World Cup has also provided Putin with an opportunity to strengthen his ties with East Asian nations. Japanese Princess Takamado headed to the host country to support the Samurai Blue; the first member of the Japanese royal family to visit Russia since 1916. Although she did not formally meet with Russian officials during her eight-day visit, her appearance at the stadium was symbolic given the prolonged territorial dispute between the two states since the Second World War.

A more important diplomatic breakthrough occurred at the South Korean and Russian summit, which took place in Moscow in the midst of the World Cup. The key agenda of this highest-level talk included the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and the economic co-operation between South Korea and Russia, with Presidents Moon and Putin declaring their strategic partnership at a press conference.

The Kremlin had been excluded from the recent political development in the Korean peninsula, especially since the US and North Korean Summit in Singapore, yet the meeting with Moon Jae-in established Putin as an important player in the Northeast Asian geopolitics.

The West did not stay away from Russia’s World Cup campaign either. There was a rumour that Donald Trump would make a surprise visit to Moscow, although, in the end, Washington instead sent his national security adviser, John Bolton. The news that North America had won the right to stage the 2028 World Cup oiled the conversation between the current and future hosts, with Bolton even asking Putin about the secret to delivering the event successfully, and the Russian president saying he was willing to help.

As the football tournament unfolded, some European countries also abandoned initial protests against Russia. Sweden terminated the political boycott against the Kremlin as its team excelled, with politicians from Stockholm finally attending the football stadium in St. Petersburg to cheer for their compatriots. The French President Emmanuel Macron may also visit Russia if Les Bleus reaches the grand finale. It appears that the Western diplomatic alliance crumbles when this coalition clashes with national pride of the member states.

While we need to wait a few more days to see who will win the golden trophy in this year, in the field of sport diplomacy, however, it seems safe to predict that the Russian president is likely to be a champion of the game. Compared to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin’s image and his influence are less visible in this World Cup. Yet he appears to be accumulating a larger number of diplomatic assets by simply standing by the football pitch.

From the Far East through the Middle East and to the West, Putin is diversifying and strengthening relations with other nations, as international VIPs pay a visit to the host. With the Russian side still in the tournament, the Kremlin may be able to obtain yet more political capital.

Dr Jung Woo Lee is lecturer in Sport and Leisure Policy at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests lie in sport diplomacy and inter-Korean relations and sport. He recently published (with two co-editors) an edited volume of Routledge Handbook of Sport and Politics.