Russia's Soft Power Plays
Words by Alexi Barnstone
“Football is the most meaningful meaningless thing on the planet”
This old cliché has never been more apt. The prospect of twenty-two men gallivanting across a grass pitch for hours has no significant bearing on politics, economics or international relations. Or does it? It is arguable that this year’s World Cup event was one massive piece of global political propaganda, tactfully deployed by the hosting nation. The World Cup was mechanized by Putin as a ‘soft power’ tool, propagating a new perspective of himself and Russia.
‘Soft power’, a term originally coined by Joseph Nye, is the acquisition of power and reputation through mediums such as culture and economics. Its counterpart ‘Hard Power’ is the application of military force and coercion. Soft power is the term used for far subtler approaches to international relations and the acquisition of power.
The World Cup is the perfect soft power tool. The tournament is the most popular sporting event in existence and turns heads the world over. 3.4 billion viewers tuned in to the 2014 iteration of the event in Brazil, nearly half of the world’s population. In 2018 the spotlight shifted to Russia, where the world watched one of the greatest international occasions of friendly competition play out with the Kremlin in the backdrop. The event branded Russia as the hub for international extravagancies and a location for all to visit. The World Cup was used as a geopolitical tool to associate the excitement and comradery of the experience with the nation hosting it. It is approximated that over a million tourists have flown to Putin’s lands to attain the experience first-hand, and it is safe to say that those tourists would have experienced a very different kind of Russia to the one that existed six months ago. The Kremlin left nothing of the experience to risk. The central government of Russia spent 11 billion dollars on infrastructure revamping the cities where games would be held, building new stadiums, train lines and other public facilities. Roger Bennett, from the soccer podcast Men in Blazers, said he did not even recognize Moscow when he arrived. Bennett stated that the streets were spotless and that women sat on stilted chairs greeting you as you walked into fresh stadiums and venues, reinforcing positive images of Russia.
Through the symbolism prevalent in the tournament, Putin manages to indoctrinate the west with a new image of Russia internationally, and rebrand himself nationally. During matches the camera consistently switched to shots of the Russian strong man smiling with global leaders. The powerful imagery should not be under appreciated. From the Saudi King to the French President, the world watches on as our leaders, representative of democracy and liberty, provide Putin with the same legitimacy of rule.
Furthermore, the deployment of the World Cup to enforce positive images of Russia has been far more successful than the hosting of the Sochi winter Olympics in 2014. Russia was met with a flurry of media skepticism and critique. Under a stronger American regime, with considerable less obscurity in their opinions of Russia, the media was quick to discredit the event as an international propaganda ploy that attempted to distract from the numerous human rights violations and mischiefs of the host government. This time around the investment seems to be paying far higher dividends. With an orange troll in the Whitehouse and a British administration fumbling their way through Brexit, the media has missed its opportunity to put the sociocultural powers of the World Cup in check. As the West trips over itself in a multitude of fashions in a plethora of countries, the World sees Russia as the new international hub.