Russia’s Goals Won’t End With the World Cup
An emboldened Putin is ready to seize the opportunities Trump has given him.
Russian President Vladimir Putin devoted years to winning and hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Those games ended up as the most expensive in history, thanks to rampant corruption and Putin’s desire to impress the world. Russia spent a whopping $51 billion, outstripping even the Chinese budget for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In the lead-up to the Sochi Games, Putin played a more discreet hand than expected as the revolution unfolded in Ukraine, seeking to avoid moving the spotlight away from Sochi.
But on the weekend of the closing ceremonies, with the expensive public relations exercise in Sochi wrapping up, Putin was meeting with key figures at the Kremlin and preparing to pounce. Four days later, he sent his “little green men” — Russian special forces in unmarked uniforms — into the Crimean peninsula. It was the first large-scale military action in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, an act of aggression that has so far cost more than 10,000 lives and displaced millions more. For Putin, the end of the games meant that he was less constrained and able to take overt action.
This year’s World Cup is another of Putin’s vanity projects. He has invested for years in Russia’s hosting, seeing it as a chance not only to draw the attention of the world but also to distract Russians from the stagnant economy, repression, and crippling corruption at home. In Putin’s first presidential term, the social contract was: “You give me power, and I’ll give you order.” In his second term, it became: “You give me power, and I’ll give you prosperity.” In his third term (and now into his fourth), it is: “You give me power, and I’ll give you pride.” This shift has made projects such as Sochi and the World Cup important not only for boosting Russia’s reputation on the world stage but for justifying Putin’s continued grip on power at home.
But as the nonstop coverage of the World Cup comes to a close, Putin will find himself once again basking in the afterglow and looking for new opportunities to exercise Russian power globally.
This time, rather than meeting with his domestic henchmen, he will be meeting with his most prominent foreign enabler: U.S. President Donald Trump. In the last month, Trump has called for Russia’s readmission into the G-8 (now G-7), suggested that he might endorse Russia’s illegal attempted annexation of Crimea, pondered upending America’s conventional deterrence by removing U.S. troops from Germany, and falsely claimed that the European Union existed to undermine America. Putin’s old colleagues from the KGB couldn’t have scripted Trump’s utterances any better.
Putin knows that Trump cares more about ego than he does about substance, which means that he’ll be deeply invested in portraying his meeting with Putin as a success. Putin is a poker player sitting down for a game with a guy who only knows how to play Go Fish and is ready to go all in. And whatever Putin wins at the table, he knows Trump’s first concern will be not being seen as a loser.
In the days after the summit, Trump will talk about how successful it was. That, too, buys Putin a buffer for action, just as Kim Jong Un knew that Trump would be too invested in a deal to admit that he gave up something for nothing in Singapore and thus would be loath to call out the continued expansion of North Korea’s nuclear program just weeks after their June 12 meeting.
We should ask ourselves, what will Putin do when the World Cup ends? Fresh off a meeting with a facile and flaccid U.S. president, how might Putin — ever the opportunist — use this opportunity? Will he ramp up the ongoing horror in Syria? Will he attempt to finish the job in Ukraine by sending more Russian soldiers and supplies across the border? Will he move on to the heart of Europe, working with his partners in Austria’s ruling coalition or with the new populist government in Italy, or by beefing up efforts to topple Angela Merkel in Germany? He will feel like he has chits, so where will he spend them?
Thanks to the American retreat from world leadership and the rise of populism in Europe and the United States, Putin is in a more advantageous geopolitical position today than he was in 2014. Perhaps he’ll just continue to watch with delight from Moscow as Trump does his work for him. But if past is prologue, we’d be foolish not to expect him to take the enormous amount of leash he has been given and run with it.