The soccer World Cup kicks off in seventy five-days, June 14, in Moscow. Anyone who remembers the timing of the Ukraine crisis and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia will be paying close attention to what happens next.
Global sporting events, with their enormous audiences around the world, can be used to deliver a political punch – or to obscure one. The elaborate propaganda campaigns that increasingly accompany them are much more powerful than paid advertising.
Like the demonstrations on the central square in Kiev that began in November 2013, last month’s poisoning of former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and its alarming aftermath occurred too close to the summer games to be considered a coincidence. This was something other than synchronicity.
To refresh your memory: Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in February 2010. Vladimir Putin regained the Russian presidency in March 2012. For ten years, Putin had been trying to put together some sort of economic structure among Russia and the newly independent states on its eastern and southern borders – the Eurasian Economic Community, in what had become his parlance. He was determined that Ukraine be part of it. Many citizens in the western half of that nation, formerly a republic of the USSR, hoped to join the European Community instead.
Two months before the Sochi Olympics, EC headquarters in Brussels sought to force the issue. Yanukovych refused to sign on. Demonstrations in Kiev began in its central square, or maidan. In December Putin offered Ukraine $15 billion in foreign aid and promised to cut the price of gas by a third. The Olympics unwound with much hoopla over two weeks.
US politicians, including Sen. John McCain, showed up at the maidan on their way to the games to support the demonstrators. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs under John Kerry, passed out cookies there. She was caught on a cell phone call to the US ambassador, which was taped and leaked by the Russians, describing the leadership of the new Ukraine government the US sought. “F— the EU,” she famously said.
As the Olympics neared their climax, so did the Maiden demonstrations. Dozens of protesters and police were killed in spasms of violence between February 18-20; Even now, it is not clear how the shooting began. An agreement to schedule new elections was made, and broken one day later. On February 22, the eve of the closing ceremonies in Sochi, the kleptocratic Yanukovych fled Kiev for Moscow. Putin described the events as a US-sponsored coup.
A few days later, Russian forces began infiltrating Crimea, preparing to occupy it. The peninsula had been part of Russia since war with Turkey in 1783; only in 1954 had Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic, on a whim.
The Obama administration presented annexation as an outrage, and pressed for sanctions. Hillary Clinton did so even more vigorously. Nuland, who had previously been State Department spokesperson when Clinton was Secretary, told Congress in May,
At some point at the not-too-distant future, the nationalistic fever will break in Russia… when it does, it will give way to a sweaty and hard realization of the economic costs…. Russia’s citizens will ask: What have we really achieved? Instead of funding schools, hospitals, science, and prosperity at home in Russia, we have squandered our national wealth on adventurism, interventionism, and the ambitions of a leader who cares more about empire than his own citizens.
In Moscow, her remarks were considered tantamount to a declaration of political war. And so events accelerated on their downhill path. All this is to be found in Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ru7inous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, 2017), by Samuel Charap and Timothy Colton, of, respectively, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Harvard University.
The Skripal affair is obviously different. The attempt on the lives of a former Russian spy and his daughter, on British soil, using some variant of a nerve gas developed by the former Soviet Union in the 1970s, has been condemned around the world. It seems to echo the 2006 assassination in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian Secret Service specialist in organized crime who had defected.
But while the British prime minister Theresa May has accused the Russian government of “almost certainly” perpetrating the crime, details of her government’s investigation have been skimpy and, so far, unconvincing. Knowledgeable skeptics have been busy, especially the blogger Moon of Alabama.
Even less apparent has been a plausible motive. Why further sabotage relations with the West on the eve of the showcase soccer matches? Are there no other powerful factions, in Moscow or elsewhere, who might benefit from the further rupture of relations that has ensued? The Russians, of course, have claimed they were framed. But then they would say that, wouldn’t they?
Much of the best reporting from Moscow continues to be that of Fred Weir, of The Christian Science Monitor. Last week Weir sent back an especially somber dispatch. The latest round of recriminations may represent “a breaking point” in what had become an increasingly fragile US-Russian relationship. The mass expulsions of diplomats, he wrote, exceeded even the bitterest episodes of the old Cold War.
The mood of the Russian public, once quite pro-American, seems set to take another dark anti-Western turn. Analysts say average Russians would be horrified if it were proved their leaders had authorized a nerve gas attack, such as the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, on foreign soil. But in the absence of such proof, or even clear evidence, they tend to believe the Kremlin’s denials and see Western claims as unprovoked insults and blind anti-Russian hostility.
So far there is no suspect, no clear picture of how the crime unfolded, and no motive being offered by the British government in the Skripal case, says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “Yet political blame came swiftly, and punishment followed shortly thereafter.
It almost doesn’t matter what evidence eventually emerges, the lines have already been drawn,” he says. “Everyone is already trapped by their own narrative. So, of course, Russians will consolidate behind the Kremlin more than ever.
So get ready for the next round of evangelism, as the World Cup takes center stage. With key issues of the state-sponsored doping scandal in Sochi still unresolved, the Russian government will once again tread the edges of a chasm between public opinion at home and abroad.