Putin plays chess. His years in the KGB taught him patience and planning. He plays the long game, he positions his pieces and waits for the perfect moment to strike.
The World Cup has proven to be an outstanding publicity coup for Putin. It was foreshadowed with fear for attendee’s safety. British media and UK officials warned fans of danger from hooligans, the BBC aired a piece on Russian Ultras conducting training camps and reminding us of the attacks during EURO 2016 in France, and UK officials refused to attend the games under the dark cloud of the attempted assassination of the Skripals in Salisbury. However, none of the predicted violence has come to pass. Social media is, instead, showing pictures of fans posing with police, attendees helping to clean stadiums, and posts of the wonderful hospitality of the Russian people. It’s a feel good atmosphere that allowed Putin to declare the World Cup “helped break many stereotypes about Russia.” It also represents some of the newest and nimblest pieces on his board.
The World Cup and FIFA have even helped Putin shake-off the cloud of systemic state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes. In late June, FIFA announced the investigations opened against players named to Russia’s preliminary squad last month had been closed, effectively countering the narrative chasing Russian athletes from the 2014 Sochi games through the 2018 Pyeongchang games. During those long four years, Putin’s Fancy Bears’ Hack Team has been tasked with hacking WADA, the IOC and sports federations from every country Russia competed against. Information collected was then used to discredit WADA and the IOC, and build a campaign declaring Russia as the victim; the scapegoat while everyone else does the same thing. Individual elite athletes were targets in efforts to teardown their reputations when Russian athletes couldn’t rise to their level. But the World Cup changed that. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova addressed doping allegations from German press as “fake news” and saying Russia may seek defamation protection in court. Putin’s Russia once “disappeared” critics of the regime, now they sue in court; another publicity coup and more pieces.
But the World Cup does not exist in a vacuum and it is but a piece on Putin’s board. Another is propaganda. Zakharova is quick to discuss turmoil in both the UK and among NATO allies. She is backed by the Russian social media manipulation or “troll and bot” program. She mentions a topic and the bots saturate us with it. Following Putin’s propaganda is as easy as watching trends on the Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 Dashboard. Studying it provides “tells” into Putin’s long game strategy. Looking at it, one can deduce Putin backing particular Western political candidates is a move. Disrupting Western political processes is a strategy. But the long game is really to undermine trust in Western democracy and shift the balance of global power in Putin’s favor. As Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it, “I think that we are in the post-West world order… it is not very easy to adjust to new realities that there are other powerhouses economically, financially and politically”. Putin sees a future where the game is balanced much more in his favor and his army of pawns dominates discourse.
Finally, let’s not forget Putin’s military. Some of the most formidable pieces, and ones that get overlooked during uplifting feel-good events. Russian forces annexed Crimea, and the West condemned Putin’s actions. Four-years on Crimea remains under Putin’s control. And where is the West, the UN has a resolution and the EU sanctions. The U.S president is considering recognizing Crimea as Russian. This would be a major loss of playing field for the West, but one lost to a better player. It seems the loudest voice calling out Putin these days is Croatian defender, Domagoj Vida and his chants of “Slava Ukraini!” Putin is not a fan of having his behavior called to account, but Vida is only one lone piece, Putin has a formidable wall of pieces to call on and he has the strategy and patience to see the game through.