It was a near-perfect opening day for Russia as its hosting of the World Cup kicked off Thursday.A 5-0 victory over Saudi Arabia, thousands of fans filling the squares of Moscow in the evening sunshine,and all of it broadcast to hundreds of millions watching around the globe.
“For Putin himself, this World Cup is extremely important with precisely an aim of demonstrating his so-called “second face”, a friendly, open face that theoretically could have contributed to the change of Russia’s image as well as his own if it had not been for previous events.”
Events that have made Russia the pariah of the West, the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which investigators say was shot down by a Russian missile,the intervention in Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad and the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil which London blames squarely on the Kremlin.
“Well, it lost the soft power gains Russia got from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and how quickly it gave them away when it started the annexation of Crimea before their closing ceremony had even begun.So there’s something else at play it for Russia and which is that it will use the World Cup as an example of its reemerging as a great power and Western countries by participating in the World Cup are in a sense enabling President Putin to portray the competition in those terms.”
A successful World Cup is key to the Kremlin’s plans.For the fans, geopolitics comes a distant second to the football and the partying.But for Western countries taking part, that presents a problem:Will the World Cup be used to whitewash Russia’s record on the global stage?
Analysts say it will take more than a football tournament to end Russia’s isolation. “Unfortunately, there would be a huge amount of work to do to dismantle what has already been done.Russia is unable to unfreeze the Donbas conflict in its present political situation. Russia will by no means give Crimea back to Ukraine, that is too late.Russia is not ready to express its political will to have serious talks with the West.”
Alongside the soft power games of the World Cup and the Sochi Olympics,Putin has maintained his popularity through military campaigns in Ukraine and Syria, says analyst Foxall.
“The question that it begs of course is where next or what next in order to enable Putin to maintain those remarkably high approval ratings that he currently enjoys.”
That question will remain long after the fans have returned home, after the World Cup final in one month’s time.
Henry Ridgwell, for VOA News, Moscow.