The World Cup may be about football, but for Russia, there is a sideline offensive that’s equally, if not more, important than sporting excellence. From the outset, Vladimir Putin has not hidden his desire to use this premier event to expand his country’s diplomatic relations. Now, with the tournament ending on Sunda, Kremlin’s World Cup tactic is delivering the goals.
A few months before the commencement of the sporting spectacle, the world witnessed the specter 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 hospitalized 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 cooperation between South Korea and Russia, with Presidents Moon and Putin declaring their strategic partnership at a press conference.Worl
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 also visited Russia during the Semi-Finals against Belgium, and will likely be in Russia until the end of the World Cup on Sunday since his squad made into the finals.
Although Russia’s squad were eliminated against Croatia during penalty shootouts, Vladimir Putin was the real winner of the “Golden Cup”. Making new friends, securing deals and obtaining more political capital.