Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and FIFA President Gianni Infantino visit the Fisht Stadium, which will host matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Sochi. Photo: Reuters/Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and FIFA President Gianni Infantino visit the Fisht Stadium, which will host matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Sochi. Photo: Reuters/Sputnik/Aleksey Nikolskyi/Kremlin

Sporting events are great occasions to project “soft power.” Adolf Hitler hosted the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to project the image of a peace-loving, benign Germany. The western world had no qualms about participating in that event.

But when it comes to Russia, the legacy of the two events it hosted were mired in political controversy – the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow and the 1994 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

In 1980, the western world led by the United States boycotted the event, protesting against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. And in 1994, the West stole the thunder from the Sochi Winter Olympics after the regime change in Ukraine that caught Russia hopelessly flat-footed, leading to cascading US and EU sanctions.

But Vladimir Putin is a self-confessed sports nut and Russia finds itself hosting the most glamorous sporting event of the world – the FIFA World Cup 2018 from June 14 to July 15.

Moscow must be heaving a sigh of relief that there is no western boycott of the event and three European teams are actually the favorites to claim the trophy, with bookkeepers backing Germany (9/2), France (11/2) and Spain (7/1). French President Emmanuel Macron said in St Petersburg last week that he intends to visit Russia again if France makes it to the final.

However, the big question is whether Washington would condescend to let Putin bask in the glory of a successful World Cup. The Russian host must be biting his nails, as his eyes scour Syria and Ukraine. A blow could come from Syria in any direction – a terrorist strike, a humiliating attack on Russian assets or a brawl with the US military deployed to Syria. But the probability is low.

Russia is on full alert and is occupying the high ground in Syria. In recent weeks big Russian transport planes have been reportedly flying in large quantities of weaponry. In political terms, too, the line-up in Syria is such that a face-off between Russia and the West is unlikely.

The ‘West’s man in Kiev’

Any serious move to embarrass Putin in the weeks ahead can only originate from Ukraine. Donbas is the region to be watched. Preparations have been going on – new supplies of NATO weapons and the arrival of more mercenaries have been reported in Ukraine, which cannot be mere grandstanding.

President Viktor Poroshenko is desperately keen to ingratiate himself with the US and EU when their interest in him is waning. He is deeply unpopular with a rating of 6% and has to face a presidential election in March next year. A flare-up in Donbas could help him reemerge as the “West’s man in Kiev.”

Surely, if Donbas witnesses bloody conflict, Moscow might as well forget hopes of a new beginning with the EU – especially, Germany and France. A groundswell of European opinion may even demand more punitive sanctions against Russia, which will be a boon for the US to reassert its transatlantic leadership at a time when the dull roar of the retreat of Euro-Atlanticism in Europe is audible. Putin is damned if he intervenes in Donbas and is also damned if he doesn’t go to the aid of the Russian-speaking separatists in the region.

Interestingly, the United Nations Security Council reopened the Ukraine file on May 29 to discuss Russia’s alleged role in the 2014 downing of a commercial plane over Donbas. US Ambassador Nikki Haley tore into Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine and its “purported annexation of Crimea.” Haley underscored that the US will be working closely with France and Germany to show the rulebook at the Kremlin.

She warned: “Until Russia ends its outrageous actions in Ukraine, the position of the United States will not waver … Until Russia returns the Crimean Peninsula to Ukrainian control, US sanctions related to the invasion of Crimea will continue. And until Russia pulls its forces out of eastern Ukraine and honors its Minsk commitments, our sanctions in response to its flagrant misconduct in the eastern part of the country will stay in place.”

Haley’s remarks will dampen any Russian hopes of generating soft power in the downstream of the FIFA World Cup. Any recrudescence of tensions in Donbas may provide just the reason for Washington to accede to the request from Poland to set up a permanent American military base in that country comprising a full armored division.

Warsaw has offered up to $2 billion to help set up the infrastructure. The Kremlin warned on May 29 that any such “expansionist steps” will definitely “result in counteractions of the Russian side to balance the parity.”

The Russian hosts must be regretting that the US team were eliminated from the FIFA World Cup tournament following its stunning defeat (2-1) against Trinidad and Tobago, which reduced the level of interest of the American public in the forthcoming event. But the worrisome part should be that Uncle Sam doesn’t like being reduced to a bystander when a world event takes place.