Why Russia is so bad at soccer

Analytics | | 9-11-2018, 18:35

The numerous times that Russia has scored own goals suggests that it plays very bad soccer. In President Vladimir Putin’s eyes, the war in Ukraine is a war with the West with Ukraine merely acting as a ‘Western fifth column’ in the Russian World. Putin’s main enemy in Ukraine is President Petro Poroshenko who has set his presidency on a course of taking Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence. 

The most important reason for Russian own goals is Russian national identity which can be analysed in two ways.

The first is that Russia while seeking recognition as an equal great power by the U.S. never shows respect its smaller neighbours. When discussing Russian hybrid war, it has become customary for Western experts to cite the so-called 2013 Gerasymov Doctrine which assumes it is new and invented by Putin.

In fact, President Borys Yetsin also undertook hybrid warfare in Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia where frozen conflicts were created; in Ukraine, an attempt to create a frozen conflict in the Crimea failed. Putin’s more recent hybrid war in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine is not therefore new. 

The most glaring example of Russia scoring an own goal has been in Ukraine. Again, this is not a new Putin phenomenon as Russia has had difficult relations with five ‘nationalist’ and ‘pro-Russian’ Ukrainian presidents. In 1994, Leonid Kuchma was elected on a moderate pro-Russian platform and yet it took Yeltsin three years to visit Kyiv and sign an inter-state treaty, and two more years for both houses of the Russian parliament to ratify it. In the meantime, Kuchma turned to the West and struck close relations with U.S. President Bill Clinton and with NATO.

In 2004 and 2014, Putin felt personally humiliated when Viktor Yanukovych was prevented from taking power in the first instance and fled from power in the latter. Yanukovych had dropped plans to sign the EU Association Agreement and accepted a $15 billion Russian ‘loan’ (in reality bribe). Putin’s anger at losing the strategic prize of Ukraine, which Yanukovych was willing to deliver after he was re-elected in January 2015 and taking Ukraine into the Eurasian Economic Union, led him to score the biggest own goal in Russian history.

Putin’s own goal has been the ending of Russian soft power in Ukraine and giving President Petro Poroshenko the tools to enact policies that have led to Ukraine’s irreversible withdrawal from the Russian World and integration into Europe. Pro-Russian influence is hampered  by the disintegration of the Party of Regions and banning of the Communist Party and by the fact 16% of voters and 27 election districts, who supported Yanukovych and the Party of Regions in the 2010 and 2012 elections, are under Russian occupation and do not take part in Ukrainian elections. It is now impossible for a pro-Russian presidential candidate or political party to win a Ukrainian election.

Russian soft power influence in TV, radio and newspapers has ended after they were banned. Many anti-Ukrainian books and Russian authors can no longer be imported. Russian social media (VKontakte, Odnokasniki, Yandex) are banned and their place has been taken by Facebook, Google and Gmail. Putin has embraced Soviet leader and war criminal Joseph Stalin as the centerpiece cult figure of Russia’s new religion of the Great Patriotic War. Ukraine, in contrast, has undertaken a radical policy of de-communisation which has removed 1,320 Lenin monuments and changed the names of 50,000 streets and 1,000 inhabited places (including 32 towns). Ukraine has the freest access Soviet archives in Eurasia which is on a par with the three Baltic states, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Most important has been the Constantinople Patriarch’s support for the independence (autocephaly) of Ukrainian Orthodox from Russia. The Russian Orthodox Church will lose a third of its parishes and important religious sites, such as St. Sophia Cathedral and the Monastery of the Caves dating back to Kyiv Rus. The seriousness of this crisis was evident when Putin called an emergence session of the Russian Security Council and the Russian Orthodox Church decided to split from Constantinople.

Ukraine’s religious independence will lead to four strategic defeats for Putin. Firstly, Russian myths that Kyiv Rus was the ‘first Russian state’ are thoroughly discredited. Kyiv is far older than Moscow and Ukrainians are a far older nation than Russians. Secondly, the Russian Orthodox Church will no longer be the largest Orthodox Church in the world. Thirdly. Constantinople will have a pro-European ally in the new Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Fourthly, the Ukrainian example could lead to a domino effect with Belarusian and Moldovan Orthodox also seeking autocephaly.

The second is that Russian identity, and President Vladimir Putin in particular, are angry with the Western world. Putin has twice moved to the right in 2005-2007 in response to the Rose and Orange Revolutions and in 2011-2012 in response to domestic protests and EU enlargement. Putin had spelled out his anger at the West in his well-known February 2007 speech to the Munich security conference and a year later Russia invaded Georgia and recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But the West chose to ignored Putin’s anger then.

In 2014, the West had not yet woken up to the fact that Putin was at war with it. The West was still living under its delusions about ‘reformer’ President Dmitri Medvedev, the hope for a Russian-U.S. reset of their relations and Russia’s strategic partnership with Europe.

Since 2014, Putin has scored so many own goals it has been impossible for the West not to open its eyes and finally come to understand that he is at war with them. In July 2014, a Russian Buk missile shot down the Malaysian MH17 airliner killing 298 crew and passengers. Russian hacking into European and U.S. elections, referenda and official institutions has been relentless. 

2016 was a year that crossed many red lines, particularly in the UK and the U.S. Russia intervened to support the Leave campaign in the UK’s Brexit referendum; a criminal investigation was launched in November 2018 into Russian financing of the Leave campaign. Putin did not give up scoring home goals and sent GRU assassins to poison a Russian intelligence officer who had worked for the British and had been exchanged. The chemical attack on the Skripals completely backfired and led to the expulsion of 149 Russian spies from West countries and allies and tougher sanctions against Russia.

Putin’s biggest own goal was his interference in the 2016 U.S. elections which led to a bi-partisan  consensus to be tougher against Russia through sanctions, greater support for NATO’s forward presence in the three Baltic states and Poland and the sending of military equipment to Ukraine. The resultant anti-Russian atmosphere in Washington resembles that last seen in the 1980s during the Ronald Reagan era. 

Putin’s own goal completely destroyed the possibility for a Russian-U.S. reset under Donald Trump which had been Moscow’s hope in 2016 following his election. Putin had sought two steps from President Trump. The first was for Russia to be recognised as an equal great power to the U.S.; Putin was extremely angry when President Barack Obama described Russia as ‘a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbours — not out of strength but out of weakness.’ The second was to have the U.S. support for a second agreement modelled on that reached in Yalta in 1945 with Russia being granted Eurasia (including Ukraine) as its sphere of influence.

Russia has shown that it is a very bad at playing soccer and thereby is forever scoring own goals. These own goals were also undertaken by Yeltsin but have been exacerbated by Putin because of his visceral anger with the West. The source for his anger and own goals is the lingering legacy of Soviet-Russian identity and the unwillingness of all post-Soviet Russian leaders to distance their country from the past. 



About the author:

Taras Kuzio is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine (2017) and joint author of The Sources of Russia's Great Power Politics: Ukraine and the Challenge to the European Order (2018).