Russia’s latest attacks on UK soil could spark World Cup boycott

In the wake of the poisoning of the one-time Soviet intelligence officer turned British-controlled mole, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, Prime Minister Theresa May has bounced 23 Russian “diplomats” from Britain.

The attempted murder with a deadly nerve agent is not the first occurrence of a Russian hit job on UK soil. Although the most famous previous case was the Kremlin-ordered murder of another former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006 by exposure to radioactive polonium 10, there have been a number of other suspicious deaths that have occurred in Britain in recent years that are possibly linked to Moscow. Indeed, there was another such death just this past week.

However, May’s decision to PNG nearly two-dozen diplomats, while a good first step, is just that. In response, the Russian government will expel British diplomats stationed in Moscow.  The only other reaction from May’s government has been to announce that the royal family will not be attending the World Cup this summer in Russia. It’s doubtful that Putin will lose any sleep over either of the measures May has taken.

However, Putin would lose sleep if the UK and NATO allies agreed to pull their national soccer/football teams from participating in the World Cup as long as it is held in Russia. And if Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer’s international governing body, refused to change the venue, then an informal coalition of like-minded nations should put on a tournament in a country or countries that aren’t behaving like the rogue state Russia has become. Yes, contracts will have to be broken and lawsuits might follow, but can one really say that the downside is greater than the Russians using a chemical weapon on another sovereign state? Already the leaders of France, Germany, the US and the UK have condemned this “first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War.” Now they have do something.

Hosting the Olympics has long been a goal of nations wanting to tout their arrival on the world stage. While the most famous case was Nazi Germany’s hosting of the summer Olympics in 1936, in more recent times we’ve seen the summer Olympics given to China in 2008 and Brazil in 2016, and the winter Olympics to Russia in 2014. Now it appears the World Cup has taken on the same legitimating role, with plans to hold the tournament this year in Moscow and, in 2022, in that “traditional” hot bed of soccer, Qatar.

One would think that the cheating done by Russian athletes in past international sporting events would be sufficient to put a halt to such gifts, but, apparently, not. Even the military invasion of Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea haven’t put a hitch in FIFA’s decision to back away from a Putin-hosted World Cup.

Of course, as repeated investigations of FIFA have shown, integrity is not a singular feature of that governing body. Corruption and self-dealings in awarding Cup sites have been all too frequent. And while this past summer the release of the Garcia report, a 2014 internal report based on the investigation by a former US Attorney, found no smoking gun when it came to Moscow’s bid to host the World Cup, the report’s findings are marked by the caveat that Garcia had no subpoena power and therefore relied on the voluntary cooperation of the very individuals they were investigating. And, in fact, as the New York Times reports:

Over the course of 430 pages, the secret report provides provocative glimpses of unmistakably questionable behavior by some of world soccer’s top officials, as well as others eager to meet their every demand. Huge amounts of money ending up in strange places. High-ranking executives behaving shadily, petulantly and, at times, perhaps illegally. Rules broken, slyly circumvented or simply bent beyond their intent.

Given the amount of money that the Kremlin’s henchmen toss around in Europe and elsewhere on all kinds of fronts and for all kinds of issues, it would be remarkable indeed if somehow this World Cup bid is the exception to that behavior.

In 1980, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter pulled the US Olympic team from participating in the summer games that were to be held in Moscow—this coming from a president who only a few years before had decried Americans’ “inordinate fear of communism.” So, the precedent exists.

Given all that is on Prime Minister May’s plate these days, and her own iffy political situation, it might be a bridge too far for her to unilaterally take this step. On the other hand, if London’s allies were to support her by pulling their squads and, in turn, putting on a tournament outside of Russia, it might just be a turning point for pulling international soccer out of the muck its long been in. More importantly, it could also serve to remind the Russian people before they reelect Putin to the presidency in just a few days that there are costs to their nation to his continued rule.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.