World Cup Gives Putin's Policies a Global Stage

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People take a picture front of a banner Zabivaka, the official mascot for the 2018 World Cup.

People take a picture front of a banner Zabivaka, the official mascot for the 2018 World Cup.


Photo:

juan barreto/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

MOSCOW, Russia—Few in Russia have high hopes for their middling national team in the soccer World Cup, which kicks off here Thursday. For President

Vladimir Putin,

the opportunities to score points will come mostly off the field.

The world’s most-watched sports event is a chance for Mr. Putin to showcase Russia’s economic progress and recovered international confidence during his 19-year-rule, despite growing isolation from the West.

For Mr. Putin, it is also an opportunity to present an image of the country as a rising geopolitical power broker amid a haphazard U.S. foreign policy under President

Donald Trump.

“The game will be beautiful, but also useful, because there are many [high-level] colleagues from many countries who have arrived and there’s an opportunity to talk, meet,” Mr. Putin said after meeting his Azerbaijan counterpart Wednesday.

As the West has sought to isolate Russia over its military interventions in Ukraine and alleged interference in other countries’ elections, the Kremlin has sought to build new relationships in Asia and the Middle East. On Thursday, Mr. Putin will meet Saudi crown prince

Mohammed bin Salman

before Russia’s game against Saudi Arabia to discuss loosening joint oil-production cuts, which have helped shore up the prices in the past year.

The meeting promises to be more momentous than the game itself. Russia is the lowest-ranked side in the tournament; Saudi Arabia is the second worst, according to the FIFA’s, the international soccer association’s, standings.

Still, Mr. Putin is facing an uphill battle to turn Moscow into a geopolitical forum during the championship.

Only about a dozen heads of state have confirmed their attendance. Only one of them, Panama, has actually qualified for the event. Some of the countries represented by their leaders, such as Rwanda and Tajikistan, have never participated in the cup, while two—South Ossetia and Abkhazia—are breakaway statelets recognized by few beyond Moscow.

Russia’s last major sporting event, the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, were tarnished by an alleged state-sponsored doping program that led to the Russian team being suspended from the following Winter Olympics.

Most global leaders are staying away amid unease over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, allegations of interfering in the U.S. elections and doping scandals that have dogged Russian sport for years. The U.K has said that no senior officials will travel to Russia for the Cup in protest over Moscow’s alleged poisoning of a former spy with a nerve agent in England this year.

U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson compared Mr. Putin’s hosting of the World Cup to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

“It is an emetic prospect of Putin glorying in this sporting event,” Mr. Johnson told a parliamentary committee in March.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for cameras on the eve of the opener of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for cameras on the eve of the opener of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow.


Photo:

Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

Ukraine, where Russia has been fighting a covert war since 2014, has particularly bitterly denounced Russia’s hosting of the tournament. Ukrainian filmmaker

Oleg Sentsov,

jailed in Russia on what he and Western capitals call politically motivated terrorism charges, is on a hunger strike demanding the release of dozens of political prisoners.

On Wednesday, Mr. Putin sought to play down tensions by thanking officials from FIFA, the World Cup organizer, for keeping “sport outside of politics.”

For Mr. Putin the World Cup also is a chance to showcase the economic progress and stability he brought to Russia after the chaotic 1990s, which can be seen in the neat streets, impeccable parks and renovated monuments that fill central Moscow and St. Petersburg.

To his critics, that order was bought at the price of political freedom and international isolation.

Security has been tightened throughout the country and intelligence agencies have stepped up raids and surveillance in Russia’s predominantly-Muslim regions in the Urals and Caucasus Mountains, according to human rights group Agora.

Ramzan Kadyrov,

a Chechen warlord who has pacified the restive Muslim region on Moscow’s orders at the cost of hundreds of alleged extrajudicial killings, got to parade Egypt’s soccer star Mohamad Salah in the stadium of regional capital Grozny.

Russia has spent $12 billion on preparing for the event, despite falling real wages and stagnant economy. Some projects have brought infrastructure improvements to far-flung provincial host cities, including new airports and other transport links.

The projects have also lined pockets of well-connected billionaires, some of whom are on Western sanctions lists, and whose companies were tapped for infrastructure projects worth billions of rubles.

Write to Anatoly Kurmanaev at Anatoly.kurmanaev@wsj.com

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