The start of the 2018 World Cup (June 14–July 15) had everything that the millions of soccer fans in Russia could wish for: perfectly prepared stadiums, a beautiful and short opening ceremony, and the spectacular performance of the national team. The country has, indeed, come together and rejoiced in welcoming what is often considered the world’s greatest sporting event, which will be watched with keen attention in every inhabited corner of the globe. For the past eight years, 11 cities in Russia’s European part had been preparing to greet thousands of foreign tourists, and the joyful atmosphere in Moscow resembles the capital’s breathtaking opening to the world during the 1957 Festival of Youth and Students (Gazeta.ru, June 14). Alexei Navalny, a defiant leader of the “non-systemic” opposition, has sardonically praised the beautification of the Moscow prison, which has been transformed into a hotel-type establishment ready to accommodate “overenthusiastic” fans (Navalny.com, June 15). Yet, behind this euphoria loom reflections on the perfectly organized 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which marked the terminal decline of the Soviet Union accelerated by the war in Afghanistan, and on the spectacular 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which became a preamble to Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine (Novaya Gazeta, June 12).
President Vladimir Putin himself is not a fan of the most popular game in the world, but he is keen to maximally exploit its huge geopolitical resonance. At the opening match, he showed all due respect to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and feigned profound surprise at the overwhelming victory of the Russian team (Svoboda.org, June 15). Indeed, for him it was a useful opportunity to discuss further oil production limits by Russia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Moscow would like the price to stay in the “comfortable level” of $70–80 per barrel, as Igor Sechin, Putin’s oil-confidant and CEO of the state-owned energy giant Rosneft, put it (RBC, June 15). The colossal expenses from building the infrastructure for the World Cup are not expected to yield any net financial profits, but at least the diplomatic and propaganda dividends can be harvested (Forbes.ru, June 13).
Sporting excitement notwithstanding, the country’s economic problems persist. And the government has decided that the happy moment of the arrival of the long-awaited soccer party provides perfect cover for the inevitable decision to raise the retirement age (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 14). Many officials are worried that this painful hit to social benefits (men’s retirement age will gradually be adjusted from 60 to 65, while women face even greater change—from 55 to 63) may lead to protests (Vedomosti, June 15). Putin, meanwhile, has distanced himself from this act, pushing the responsibility squarely on the government and reserving for himself the option to show benevolence by adjusting the new rules by a year or two (Moskovsky Komsomolets, June 15). What might have even greater impact on business dynamics was the decision to increase the value added tax (VAT)—which has made it impossible for the Central Bank to cut interest rates (Kommersant, June 16). Economic stagnation, instead of the breakthrough prescribed by Putin (see EDM, May 3, 17), remains the most likely prospect for Russia, even with the “comfortable” volume of petro-revenues (Republic.ru, June 15).
Sobering up to these economic realities may happen sometime in the autumn; but presently, Russia is happy to escape Western ostracism and forget about the sanctions and its smoldering wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine (Moscow echo, June 15). Putin, nevertheless, finds it important to combine soccer diplomacy with demonstrations of Russia’s might. One example has been the large-scale exercise of the Northern Fleet, which sailed into the Barents Sea with 36 combat ships, auxiliary vessels and submarines. The navy’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which has started long repairs, was absent, as was its flagship, the nuclear cruiser Petr Velikii, which awaits its turn for overhaul (TASS, June 13). This surprise show of naval power is quite possibly intended to reinforce the diplomatic warning to Oslo that Moscow is highly displeased with Norway’s intention to invite the United States to increase to 700 the force of US Marines training in the northern fjords (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, June 14). Simultaneously, a different kind of demonstration is developing in the Sea of Azov, where Russia has redeployed several missile ships from the Caspian Flotilla (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, June 7; see EDM, May 31, June 11).
This combination of soccer “soft power” and demonstrative military “hard power” is supposed to prove Russia’s relevance on the international arena. What could confer credibility to these maneuvers is the prospect of Putin meeting with US President Donald Trump (see EDM, June 14), and the Russian mainstream media has been applying a heavy spin on this theme (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 16). The unprecedented row at the G7 summit, where Trump offended US allies in many unexpected ways, including by suggesting that Russia be readmitted into this club of advanced industrial democracies, is seen as particularly beneficial to the Russian cause (Russiancouncil.ru, June 13). Trump’s success in Singapore, during his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, is expected to pave the way for an equally high-profile heads-of-state meeting with Putin (Carnegie.ru, June 12). The Kremlin needs to find something to put on the table, and the dumping by the Russian Central Bank of half of its portfolio of US government bonds may be intended to remind the White House of Russia’s financial clout (RIA Novosti, June 15).
Moscow tries to move quickly with various initiatives, knowing that the uplifting effect of the good start to the World Cup will not last long—moreover, the continued smooth course of the month-long tournament is by no means guaranteed. Even barring any organizational setback or terrorist attack (see EDM, April 24), the soccer championship will be over by mid-July, and August has frequently brought bad luck in the past (Sobesednik, May 30). The exorbitantly expensive sports showcase will undoubtedly leave Russia with crowds of boisterous fans, discontented aging workers agitated about their pensions, and deeply worried neighbors, who know full well Russia’s propensity to upset the international order while global attention is turned to other spectacles. In the four years since the Sochi Olympics, Russia has moved far along the track of economic decline and political despotism. But it has also gained much experience in executing “hybrid” (“New Type”) interventions abroad. Moscow will, thus, almost certainly continue to test the limits of Western resolve to contain its export of conflict and corruption.