MOSCOW—The scene a week ago on the opening night of the FIFA World Cup was reminiscent of some Sopranos episode where a don offers a dinner on a special occasion: guests in expensive suits push their way through a crowded room to hug the big boss, each one of them wearing a big smile, whispering something important in the host’s ear. Bodyguards hang around in the background with frozen faces.
Russian state TV channels loved it and pro-Kremlin propaganda bloggers rejoiced: “Putin is pushing the West into isolation.”
Perhaps. But there’s no doubt that was the image Vladimir Putin wanted out of this World Cup, and the one he got.
Last week leaders of up to 20 states congratulated the Russian president when this country’s low-ranked team bested a slightly better Saudi team. The score looked impressive, 5 to 0, yet there it was—one more lucky win for Moscow.
After the match Putin hugged Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He could be seen on TV with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and posing for a selfie with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. He shook hands with the new leader of Armenia, the presidents of Bolivia, leaders of various Central Asian states, Azerbaijan and other friendly visitors.
Putin smiled, as pleased as if he’d been on the pitch scoring those goals.
“Putin plays his great game carefully, thinking more of tactics than of strategy, of how such scenes would look to the West and to the domestic audience,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin insider told The Daily Beast. “Putin would have never showed up at the football match for that hugging session if he was not sure that Russia was going to win.”
And of course amid all the hugging none of Putin’s guests mentioned the war in Ukraine, or if they did whisper something behind the smiles there was no mention on Russian state television.
After all that triumphant bonhomie last week, many in Russia noticed that on Tuesday Putin took off for Belarus, before Russia played Egypt. (Russia won, which really did seem miraculous.)
Not all matches can be predictable, even among brotherly autocrats like Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko, who’s been flirting with Beijing as a possible alternative to Moscow’s patronage.
On Tuesday the entire Russian leadership—President Putin, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, chairman of the Federation Council Valentina Matviyenko and State Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin—arrived to meet with Lukashenko in Minsk. The politicians discussed future Russia-Belarus business deals, including the transit of Russian natural gas to Europe through Belarus.
Exiled Belarusian politician Andrei Sannikov, a former presidential candidate, tells The Daily Beast that ever since the war began in Ukraine and sanctions were imposed in 2014, “Russia sells everything through Belarus, from apples and seafood to weapons for separatists. Lukashenko needs money, he demands more and more from the Kremlin, sometimes blackmailing Moscow."
So, while 31 national teams play football in Russia this month, politicians play their great games behind the scenes. Last week Putin discussed with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the creation of a new coalition bringing OPEC and Russia together to control the global oil market. According to Russian officials, Riyadh has already invested at least $2 billion in the Russian oil and gas industry.
Thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump, regularly referred to by Russian media as “insane Trump,” more and more world leaders seem happy to forget about punishing Russia. They choose to come here and criticize America alongside Putin.
The trend started last month, during the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg, when leaders of France and Japan denigrated Trump in front of an audience full of people sanctioned by the U.S. Neither French President Emmanuel Macron nor Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were criticizing President Putin. Forget Crimea and Ukraine, all that really concerned the forum’s participants was Trump’s economic war against Europe.
Has Putin won his game? Has the FIFA World Cup cleansed Russia’s reputation? That is what many in Russia hope for today, and what others worry about. “You will see, in a year or two every world leader will come to hug and cuddle with Putin, just out of fear,” gay activist Anton Krasovsky, running for mayor of Moscow, told The Daily Beast. “They will all be horrified by Trump’s madness.”