By: Lincoln Pigman
The 2018 World Cup: victories on and off the field
The past month’s most important foreign policy developments for Russia took place at home, where the 2018 World Cup began on 14 June. On the field, Russia’s national team exceeded all expectations, securing victories over Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Spain, although they failed to make it to the semifinals after losing to Croatia on 7 July. It was never a given that Russia would even survive the group stage. Its prospects were so poor that President Vladimir Putin initially distanced himself from the team’s performance: when asked to predict the winner of the tournament in late May, he named the World Cup’s organizers.
The success of the World Cup so far has undermined efforts to isolate Russia on the international stage. The tournament, which attracted more than a million attendees from around the world in its first week alone, has presented foreign visitors with an image of a free country and has been largely free of violent, discriminatory, or otherwise unpleasant incidents—thanks to significant efforts by law enforcement and security services to keep the event safe. Crucially, visits from world leaders such as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, and Spanish King Felipe VI have demonstrated that many heads of state are not interested in taking a stance on Russia as a global pariah during the tournament; even French President Emmanuel Macron is set to attend his country’s match against Belgium on 10 July.
These heads of state attended the tournament even though multiple European leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, have boycotted the World Cup over a recent attack against a former Russian spy and his daughter that took place in England and despite continued international criticism of human rights abuses in Russia. Human rights groups have spoken out about the continued imprisonment of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who began a hunger strike in May and has drawn attention to government repression during the tournament. Kiev hoped that international pressure could force concessions from Moscow by threatening to undermine the optics of the World Cup. Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin talked of ‘using’ the tournament to advocate for the release of Sentsov and other Ukrainian prisoners.
For the time being Sentsov and other Ukrainian prisoners are still behind bars, and it remains to be seen whether anything changes between now and when the World Cup ends in mid-July. Calls from the EU for countries to boycott the World Cup have not had a massive impact, judging by foreign attendance throughout the entire tournament. Even the Lithuanian foreign minister Linas Linkevicius admitted the effort had largely failed. As Russia scholar Mark Galeotti warned well in advance: ‘A half-hearted, small-scale effort [to boycott the tournament], rather than punish Putin, would empower him, encouraging him that he was successfully isolating and dividing the West while allowing him to present this as a combination of Russophobic malice and abject failure.’
US and UK officials are visibly absent from the World Cup, and that is unlikely to change, even with England’s remarkable victories on the field. But symbolic absence from official Russian events is nothing new. After all, British and American leaders haven’t participated in a Victory Day parade in over a decade: George W. Bush was the last US President to attend one in 2005, and John Major was the last UK Prime Minister to do so in 1995.
Trump: ruining one summit, threatening a second, and planning a third
June was the story of summits: on 8-9 June G7 leaders met in Quebec and on 12 June US President Donald Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. More recently, the news cycle has been dominated by talks of the upcoming meetings between NATO leaders in Brussels on 11-12 July, and between Putin and Trump in Helsinki on 16 July. The common denominator here is Trump, who derailed the G7 Summit with dissenting remarks on the status of Crimea and made headlines when he called into question Russia’s expulsion from the then-G8 following its 2014 annexation of Crimea. Now, US allies are anxious, fearing a repeat of the G7 summit at the NATO summit in Brussels as well as a love-fest between Putin and Trump in Helsinki. In reference to the upcoming Russia-US meeting, political commentator Anne Applebaum told her Twitter constituency they could “get ready for Yalta Two”.
As I observed in last month’s edition of The Hotline, the more strained the US’s alliances are, the better off Russia is: divided alliances project weakness, run the risk of decision-making paralysis, and tend to threaten Russia with less painful counter-measures. However, Trump’s affronts to US allies have not and will not erase the issues dividing Russia and Europe, even with the rise to power of a new—and, at least in rhetoric, Russia-friendly—government in Italy. Having repeatedly renewed sanctions against Moscow since 2014, Brussels is unlikely to waver now, particularly if Rome uses its support for the sanctions regime as some European Union (EU) member-states have: as leverage in intra-EU deliberations unrelated to Russia. The Kremlin has failed to convert EU and, more generally, transatlantic disunity into concrete concessions, and is unlikely to succeed now.
Fears that Putin and Trump will strike a ‘grand bargain’ – a situation where Russia extracts key concessions from the US, such as a free hand in Syria or Ukraine — are overblown. For one, Trump is too constrained by Congress as well as his own administration to dramatically alter the US’s Russia policy, much of which is by now codified in law and controlled by Congress. Take, for example, sanctions against Russia, which Trump has not been able to lift and has even overseen the expansion of, and US military assistance to Ukraine. In the case of the latter, Trump recently reinforced the policy by overseeing the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kiev. Finally, even if Trump’s rhetoric on Russia clashes with those of some officials in his administration, the fact remains that he is unwilling to grant Russia those concessions that would constitute a ‘grand bargain’ and not just a tactical tradeoff: an end to the pursuit of US hegemony in international affairs, and explicit permission for Russia to join the US in practicing international legal exceptionalism. Trump’s critics fret over his praise for Putin; but the fact remains that his policy record on Russia bears little resemblance to his rhetoric.