Since coming to power in the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin has made sport a central part of Moscow’s soft power. The wave of criticism and sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine – including the exclusion of Russia from the Football World Cup – is undermining the edifice built by the master of the Kremlin. Decryption.
Mondial-2018 and Sochi 2014 Olympics. Two global sporting events organized in honor of the leader of Russia: Vladimir Putin. Since he came to power and on his initiative, the Russians have massively invested in the sports field and extended their influence in the field.
an influence that the invasion of Ukraine hurts. Since the beginning of the war on February 24, sanctions are raining down on Russia and its athletes : cancellation of the Formula 1 Sochi Grand Prix; athletes declared personae non gratae in the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden; International Olympic Committee recommendations to ban Russians from world sport; relocation of the Champions League final from Saint Petersburg to the Stade de France… Not to mention the historic decision of Fifa taken on Monday February 28: the exclusion of Russia from the Football World Cup.
Lucas Aubin, specialist in the geopolitics of Russia and sport, associate researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (Iris) and author of “The Sportokratura under Vladimir Putin. A geopolitics of Russian sport” (éd. Bréal, 2021), deciphered for France 24 the impact that sanctions can have on the Putin regime.
France 24: What place does sport have in Vladimir Putin’s Russia? ? Can we talk about a lever of power from Russia ?
Lucas Aubin: In Vladimir Putin’s regime, sport is an element of his power. An element that he had also put in place upon his arrival in the Kremlin. The day after his election, he brought Anatoly Solomonovitch Rakhline, his former judo teacher, to the presidential palace.
Since then, he has staged himself, on numerous occasions, doing judo, running, playing hockey or bodybuilding. He wanted to create a kind of personality cult around him and embody the transformation of the Russian nation. His predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was the symbol of a Russia that was collapsing with his plumpness and his tendency to drink. Putin wanted to give the image of a Russia that is rebuilding itself.
In addition to this incarnation, he set up a politico-economico-sports system, what I call “the sportokratura”. It is a system that uses oligarchs, politicians and sportsmen to build an ultra-efficient sports model. The politicians are responsible for organizing sport, the oligarchs for financing it and the athletes for broadcasting it.
Putin asked his oligarchs to invest in national sport and, as far as possible, in world sport. This was verified with the arrival of Gazprom in the Champions League and the Schalke club until the breach of contract on Monday. [La compagnie aérienne russe] Aeroflot has sponsored Manchester United since 2013 [jusqu’à ce que le club mette fin au partenariat vendredi]. Between 2005 and 2012, Russia won dozens and dozens of major sporting events: the Sochi Olympics, the 2018 World Cup, the creation of the Sochi Grand Prix…
The objective was twofold: on the one hand, to increase patriotism around sporting values, a way of controlling the population. On the other hand, to expand Russia’s influence abroad through sport. It has become an element of Russian soft-power.
The sports institutions, which usually brandish their apoliticism, come out of their reserve this time. Is this proof of the exceptional nature of the situation ?
Lucas Aubin: We are facing an unprecedented situation in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Faced with this exceptional situation, the authorities of world sport are reacting accordingly. So much so that they seem to break with their principle of apoliticism or neutrality.
Until now, they practiced the policy of apoliticism. They said that sport should remain a neutral space and bridge the gap between different countries and regimes. Faced with the invasion of Ukraine, a good part took its responsibilities. They have decided to exclude Russia from the world sports movement.
World sport will nevertheless survive very well without the Russians. If we take the example of UEFA, which could separate from Gazprom, there are a lot of investors who are just waiting to return, especially in the Gulf countries. There will be many candidates for succession.
Renowned Russian athletes, such as the footballer Fedor Smolov, the cyclist Pavel Sivakov or the new number one in world tennis Daniil Medvedev, have taken a stand against the war and against the decisions of Vladimir Putin. Do they risk penalties ?
Lucas Aubin: A lot of athletes are currently raising their voices against the war. This is unprecedented in Putin’s Russia. They are very numerous to post on social networks, to express themselves in the press. I think Vladimir Putin has a lot less well prepared narrative in comparison with 2014 and the annexation of Crimea. Within days, the Russian discourse changed several times before the invasion of Ukraine under the fallacious pretext of “demilitarization” and “denazification”. These two arguments are not audible in Russia and one of the explanatory factors is probably the depth of the ties between Russia and Ukraine. The demonstrations that have taken place in recent days [aussi bien du côté russe que du côté ukrainien] show that a good part of these populations do not adhere to the discourse.
Athletes are the visible face of the dispute. This is far from trivial since the sports movement aims to mobilize the population around the athletes. Therefore, if renowned athletes speak against power, the latter should seek to repress them.
Repression could take the form of a “kompromat” [la publication d’informations compromettantes, réelles ou fabriquées de toutes pièces, NDLR]. We must remember the example of hockey player Artemi Panarine, who plays with the New York Rangers. At the beginning of 2021, he asked for the release of opponent Alexeï Navalny. A close friend of Putin then claimed in the press that the hockey player was not someone to be seen since he had attacked a woman in a bar in Riga, Latvia, ten years earlier. There was no proof but the consequences were indeed concrete for Panarine: he was laid off by the New York Rangers a few months and excluded from the Russian national team when he was an indisputable holder.
Are the historic sanctions taken in the field of sport able to set Vladimir Putin back? ? Or are they doomed only to be token measures ?
Lucas Aubin: Vladimir Putin is in a form of headlong rush, he does not seem to want to back down, regardless of the sanctions. Or in any case, he will refuse to present any setback as such. This sequence is a snowball. As the West sanctions, Putin’s actions get worse.
Sporting sanctions were added to diplomatic sanctions. Today, Russia is isolated and has very few allies. So, in this context, the question is whether Putin wants to go all the way, even if it means losing. Or will he look for a way out to get out of it with his head held high?
In recent days, some signals show that the war does not have consensus in the political and economic class. It could also be that members of the “sportokratura” play a role in peace. Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovic has been contacted by Ukraine to intervene in the peace talks.