Russian President Vladimir Putin wants this year’s World Cup to be one of “friendship and fair play,” but some crimes are simply too great to ignore.
There is a reason why autocrats aggressively seek to host mega-sporting events. They offer publicity and a veneer of respectability — two things Russia is desperately in the market for.
In less than a hundred days, Russia will host the FIFA World Cup, the most watched mega-sporting event in the world. But as thousands of supporters descend on Russian cities and hundreds of thousands more tune in on television, a major shadow risks hanging over the event.
As Russia is eagerly trying to recast itself as a modern and confident power, its armed forces are supporting the Syrian military win back territory controlled by anti-government armed groups by any and all means necessary, with devastating consequences for civilians there.
The Russian-Syrian military alliance’s latest abuses have taken place in Eastern Ghouta, a neighborhood of Damascus subjected to indiscriminate attacks and under one of the longest running military sieges in recent history.
Since the early days of the war in 2011, Russia has protected the Syrian government — even as it slaughtered, gassed and starved its own population. In 2015, as President Bashar al-Assad’s rule appeared threatened, Russia deployed its own forces to the country, helping Assad regain the upper hand and spreading death and misery for Syrians living in areas controlled by anti-government armed groups. There was little, if any, attempt to protect civilians.
In the eight years since Moscow was controversially selected to host the World Cup, the country has faced international criticism over its involvement in annexing Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, not to mention a major sports doping scandal and allegations of interference in the 2016 U.S. election. The Kremlin has also unleashed a broad crackdown on dissent at home and adopted and enforced a discriminatory anti-gay “propaganda” law.
What better way to clear its slate and exercise soft power than hosting the top tournament of the world’s most popular sport?
After all, for the length of the contest, its mascot Zabivaka (“the one who scores”) — a cartoonish wolf who “radiates fun, charm and confidence” — will become “an ambassador for Russia.”
The World Cup can offer a welcome respite from catastrophic world events. Sports and politics can be an uneasy mix. But some crimes are simply too great to ignore.