On Point (2/25/19)
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Are we all in a paranoid and polarized world of Vladimir Putin’s making? A longtime Russia analyst chronicles how Moscow has become the world’s most disruptive superpower.
- Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies and professor of government and foreign service and at Georgetown University. Author of “Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest.” (@AngelaStent) She served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2004 to 2006.
- Josh Gerstein, senior legal affairs correspondent for Politico. (@joshgerstein)
Excerpt From “Putin’s World:Russia Against The West And With The Rest” by Angela Stent
In July 2018, Russia showed its best face to the world as it hosted the World Cup. The spirited opening ceremony featured bears, dragons, and picturesque onion domes. The Russian team—ranked at the bottom of all those competing—defeated Saudi Arabia in the first game and went on all the way to the quarterfinals, when Croatia defeated it. But even that loss did not diminish the pervasive—and unexpected—atmosphere of good feeling. For a month, Russia welcomed fans from around the world with enthusiasm and camaraderie. Russians and foreign fans partied all night in cities from Kaliningrad in the west to Ekaterinburg, 1,500 miles away in Siberia. Even the normally dour Russian policemen had only smiles for those celebrating. As Russian president Vladimir Putin put it, “People have seen that Russia is a hospitable country, a friendly one for those who come here.” He added, “I’m sure that an overwhelming majority of people who came will leave with the best feelings and memories of our country and will come again many times.”
It is customary to describe Russians as talented chess players with a grand strategy, but Putin’s sport is judo—and that has given him a unique perspective on dealing with competitors and adversaries.
The World Cup represented a major success for President Putin. Before the games opened, there were questions about whether Russia would be able to build the facilities in time for the games, about corruption involved in the bidding for the construction, and about how international visitors would be received. Moreover, the games were held in a politically charged atmosphere, when Russia’s relations with the West were the worst they had been since p ost-communist Russia emerged in 1992. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and launch of a war in Southeastern Ukraine, its cyber interference in the US and European elections, its support for Bashar al-Assad in the brutal Syrian Civil War, and its domestic crackdowns on opponents of the regime—and the US and EU responses—all this had intensified the already adversarial relationship between Putin’s Russia and the West.
The World Cup left foreign fans with positive views of their hosts. Many had arrived in Russia with stereotypes about unfriendly Russians living in a backward country. But they reported being surprised by how “normal” Russia and its people seemed. The US sent the largest number of spectators, even though the American team did not qualify to compete. Western journalists emphasized that it was important to differentiate between the Russian government, which they criticized, and its people, who were hospitable. For their part, the Russians seemed surprised by how approachable the foreign fans were. Russians were used to seeing westerners constantly vilified in their state-run media, but a poll conducted after the games ended showed that Russians’ view of Americans and Europeans had significantly improved. The games left an afterglow of positive feelings, even though the Russians realized that, once the foreigners departed, they would no longer be able to celebrate all night in the streets. The Russia team may have lost, but the World Cup was clearly a victory for Vladimir Putin.
The World Cup represented a culmination of Putin’s project …