Why sports sanctions matter to Putin

Why sports sanctions matter to Putin

Russia is isolated. In the week since Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of neighboring Ukraine, the country has been ostracized not only diplomatically (even by some Moscow’s closest allies) and economic (international sanctions have made the ruble worth less than a penny), but also culturally.

National and club football teams of Russia have been banned international matches and tournaments, including the 2022 World Cup qualifiers. International Olympic Committee, along with several individual sports governing bodies, have followed suit. the Champions League finalwhich was to be played in Saint Petersburg in May, was moved to Paris, while the Formula 1 Grand Prix, which was to take place in Sochi in September, has been abandoned. Beyond the sports world, Russia has been disinvited this year Eurovision Song Contest and will not receive new movie releases from Disney, Warner Bros. or Sony.

It’s easy to see cultural boycotts more as a symbolic act than a serious threat to Moscow’s geopolitical position. But by suspending Russia from the world’s greatest sporting and cultural arenas, these institutions send a clear and, for Putin, potentially damaging message: if Russia acts beyond the bounds of the rules-based international order in Ukraine, it will be treated as an outsider by the rest of the world.

While these kinds of cultural sanctions will have little tangible effect on the Russian economy, they will impact the Russian people, perhaps no more than Putin himself. This, after all, is a president whose love of sport and competition is at the heart of his carefully crafted macho-nationalist image, an image that has been commemorated in memes of him playing ice hockey, wrestling and shirtless horseback riding. By excluding Russia from these arenas, international organizations not only deprive Putin of an important propaganda platform, they also undermine his image of strength. The decisions to strip him of his titles as honorary president and ambassador of the International Judo Federation and its honorary black belt in tae kwon do, these are particularly personal blows.

The irony is that the reason Putin cares so much about sports is also apparently the main reason he chose to invade Ukraine: to reaffirm Russia’s strength and status as a world power. For years, Russia has invested a lot of time and money to ensure its national teams project greatness in the world, sometimes going beyond the rules to do so: the state-sponsored doping program which has been going on for years, the revelations of which caused its athletes to have had to give up dozens of Olympic medals, prevented Russia from officially participating in the last two Olympic Games. However, Russian athletes were able to participate in the Games, under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Now, because of Putin, Russian and Belarusian Olympians will only be allowed to participate in the next Paralympic Winter Games. as neutral athletes, and will not qualify for the medals. In the future, they might not be able to compete at all.

No one is under any illusions that losing the Olympics, Eurovision or even his beloved judo will change Putin’s political calculus when it comes to Ukraine. The Russian president is far too deep in this crisis, and far too averse to defeat, to back down on matters as insignificant as sport and art, especially when compared to Russia’s financial and military challenges.

But that doesn’t mean that these kinds of cultural sanctions are totally ineffective. Sport is important to Russia – so much so, in fact, that in 2010, when the country won its bid to host the 2018 World Cup, then-Prime Minister Putin spoke enthusiastically on the impact football had on his hometown of Leningrad during World War II and how “it helped people stand and survive”. Vera Tolz, a professor of Russian studies at the University of Manchester, UK, told me the Kremlin is disproportionately sensitive when it comes to sports because it’s something ordinary people are interested in. Although Putin may overlook being snubbed by scholarly cultural institutions such as the New York Metropolitan Opera and the Cannes film festival (Russian officials “believe that a lot of people in the cultural elite don’t like Putin, so he doesn’t like them back,” Tolz said) The same is not true when he s is to exclude Russian athletes from the world’s major sporting arenas. “It is around Russian successes in sports that Putin wants to project his power inwards,” Tolz said. “That’s why he resorted to this incredible level of deception around doping, in order to ensure great success for Russian athletes.”

So far, the cultural backlash fits perfectly within the framework of the Kremlin global narrative that the sanctions are proof of the hatred of the West not only towards Putin and his oligarchs, but towards the Russian people themselves. However, the longer the country’s cultural isolation persists, the more likely these measures are to shatter state discourse. If ordinary Russians can no longer enjoy many of the activities they love, including such everyday things as watching their football teams play in international matches, seeing the latest movies, and enjoying live concerts, their tolerance for the isolationist policies of their government will diminish. Several Russians sports stars, the musiciansand other important The figures have already expressed their opposition to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Giving Russia the prestige of hosting the World Cup or a Grand Prix or participating in the Olympics confers a degree of respectability, which is not appropriate for its behavior before last week, let alone now,” said James Nixey, Russia manager. – Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said. “As time goes on, Russians should ask themselves: why is their nation excommunicated from so many events that other countries, which do not have perfect records themselves, are allowed to participate in?”