Russia has a primarily role in one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of this century while Putin erodes democracy both at home and abroad. The World Cup is Putin's PR coup.
It has become a grizzly routine for me to browse social media and come across pictures of dead Syrian children on my newsfeed. Over the past seven years, from the safety of Edinburgh, I’ve seen it all – severed limbs, charred remains, melting skin and, most recently, the lifeless body of a Syrian child who had been decapitated via a Russian airstrike.
This ought to make the heavens darken, so to speak. It ought to arouse so much outrage among us - the privileged - that we fill up the streets and demand this daily murder to end.
But it has been met with silence and, most chillingly, indifference. For the violence in Syria—outside of small bursts of international attention usually sparked by chemical weapons atrocities—exists outside the consciousness of most of the world.
Thanks to the World Cup, the genocide in Syria—driven so decisively by Iran and Russia on behalf of Assad’s rump state—has fallen further down the rungs of the collective global attention span, and will be effectively normalised. Putin’s Russia is playing host, and the tournament draws around an estimated 4 billion global viewers.
If you thought the silence or indifference or active support that surrounds the war in Syria and Russia’s role within it was bad enough, just wait until you get a load of the propaganda assault of the Russian state. Robbie Williams, of all people, who headlined the opening ceremony, said will be ‘an unforgettable show’, as he gushed about how much he loves Russia. It’s rather lacklustre team somehow managed to make it to the quarter-final stages of the tournament – another great PR coup for Putin.
The most obvious point of comparison of the World Cup being held in Putin’s Russia is Nazi Germany’s holding of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
In this sense, one might be tempted to conjure Marx’s famous statement about historic events repeating first as tragedy and then as farce, but there is nothing farcical about the effectiveness of a propaganda coup like hosting the World Cup regarding Russia’s fascistic global ambitions.
The silence surrounding Russia’s intervention in Syria was always a sign that Russian imperialism was winning, but Russia’s World Cup will lead to a new level of normalisation for its brutally sinister geopolitical agenda.
Imagine the outrage of particularly the global left if this was any other country than Russia? Imagine if the US had held the World Cup during the Iraq war? There would be rightful outrage – campaigns and protests. In fact, think of the rightful indignation when it was announced that Eurovision would be held in Jerusalem, given Israel’s illegal occupation and annexation - or the logic of boycotting nations committing active human rights abuses in general.
Yes, there exists a host of international sanctions that literally have zero effect in terms of shifting Putin’s policy, but what about organic solidarity or opposition to Russia’s genocidal, revanchist imperialist machinations?
The tragic reality is that Russian fascism navigates itself essentially unhindered through an ocean of blood in Syria, while it casts its menacing shadow over European capitals with little to no popular resistance. It is the first country since Nazi Germany to annex part of another European country, when it reacted to the peaceful overthrow of the pro-Russia puppet president in Ukraine by annexing Crimea and waging a proxy war against the rest of Ukraine.
In fact, there exists, as has been covered extensively, a very deliberately cultivated distortion, woven through pro-Russia propaganda outlets, where Russia is cast as a victim of western aggression and a bastion of truth against western lies.
In the UK, the reaction to Russia’s chemical weapons attack in Salisbury, targeting a Russian defector was already muted, but now, over four months later, two more people have been stricken by Novichok, the chemical agent used by Russia in the attack, with one of them passing away.
The news of Russian links to funding the Brexit Leave campaign are buried away in the minutes of select committees and articles that most people won’t read, in the same way that the revelation that 6,000 Russian twitter accounts had been mysteriously mobilised to support Corbyn’s Labour at the last UK general election has scarcely penetrated public consciousness.
Across all of Europe and around the globe, Russia is launching increasingly bold attacks on the already fractured liberal democratic order. This is not hyperbole. This is not ‘Russophobia’.
Russia has, over the past few decades, not just simply began to reassert itself after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet empire, but it is now actively attempting to shape world order in its own image. An order of authoritarianism and anti-egalitarianism – an order that is being sealed by the genocide in Syria. It’s among the killing fields of Syria, the devastated urban landscapes of East Ghouta, Aleppo and Homs, annihilated by Russian missiles, artillery shells, white phosphorous munitions and cluster bombs, that Russia is hammering out its new world order.
Russia is not a normal country. Leaving aside its role as the head of the growing Authoritarian International, this is a country that celebrated the birthday of Putin by firing cruise missiles from the Caspian into civilian areas of what was then Free Aleppo. It’s a nation gripped by an ultra-militaristic, chauvinistic, mentality.
And it is winning on multiple different levels - Russia is successfully degrading the mode of ethics that allegedly conditions world order. It seeks to turn the world into an abode of monsters, of authoritarian tyrants, of which it is something of a vanguard.
Moreover, Russia’s authoritarian order manages to unite left and right-wing forces in support of its endeavours. Though the comparison between Russia and the rise of European fascism of the 20th century is apt, the reality is there is much less resistance to Russia’s authoritarian drive than there was to historic fascism.
The same social forces who opposed fascism last century are likely to support the narratives of Russian imperialism, namely that it provides opposition to US imperialism and the western ‘neoliberal’ economic order. The left see liberal democracy as ‘bourgeois democracy’ and thus see any chance of weakening it as a good thing, while Russia’s propaganda outlets provides them with numerous platforms.
To the right, Russia is a bastion of White Christian civilisation against ‘Islamification’ and liberalism – it serves to unravel the egalitarian gains and order of liberal democracy, long hated by the right.
Russia’s hosting of the World Cup can only be seen through this context – in fact, to those of us who oppose authoritarianism, racism, imperialism, homophobia and, most urgently, genocide, it must be seen this way.
The fact that it largely isn’t being seen this way is symptomatic of the fact that fascism with a Russian face is triumphing – there is no coherent resistance to its advance.
The US, its allegedly ‘natural’ counterbalance, is controlled by a president who behaves like and is potentially in thrall to Putin, while he continues to help Russia’s anti-EU crusade by weakening his alleged European allies and forcing them to rely more on Putin’s Russia.
In addition to the political rise of pro-Russia forces, Europe itself has largely gone down the road of counterintuitive appeasement. It has seen that the world is willing to accommodate and green light genocide rather than risk even a remote confrontation with it, despite its bluff having been successfully called in localised circumstances.
Look at the situation currently unfolding in Daraa, where Assad’s forces, bolstered by brutal Russian airstrikes, and with an international rubber stamp, have already displaced (or cleansed) 270,000 people from the liberated areas of the province.
Aside from the mass murder and destruction of its airstrikes on civilian areas, Russia is calling all the shots, with a rebel spokesman saying that the Russian demands are simply that the revolutionaries ‘hand over everything and in return all areas will come under … Assad’s control’.
We know what this means – in every single formerly liberated area that has been conquered by Assad, we’ve seen ethnic cleansing, the institution of terror from Assad’s murderous apparatuses and sectarian gerrymandering – the ‘Homs model’, as it might be called.
Don’t expect any of this context of genocide to interrupt the World Cup. As Russia was entering the quarter-finals of the tournament to much praise from the BBC, its warplanes were bombing civilian areas of Daraa and Syrians fleeing the terror were being refused entry to Jordan.
There is unlikely to be any opposition from the compliant or terrified Russian populace – internal dissent will be and has been crushed.
We’ve already seen Mo Salah, a hero to millions, pose with Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal kleptocratic tyrannical head of the Russian federal subject of the ‘Chechen Republic, and who is responsible for brutal anti-gay purges. This is a glimpse of the process of normalisation.
If these basic progressive values can’t be defended, what chance do Syrians have?
This is a World Cup filled with Syrian blood. Russia’s effective one-party state makes it impossible to separate this sporting carnival from Putin’s global panoply of PR designed to normalise all its actions, including the Syrian genocide.
Though Russia is now out of the tournament after unexpectedly making it to the quarter-finals, the process has seen a further normalisation of Russia’s crusade – every time I see celebrations of different aspects the Russian nation on the BBC, I see yet another wave of depoliticisation as that nation carries out its crimes in Syria and its sinister offensive against global democracy.
Where any criticism exists, from human rights groups and Russia’s victims, it will fall on deaf ears as the world is mesmerised by the tournament.
As Russia continues to murder Syrian children, snuffing out the precious seeds of life and hope in a faraway land, as Russia continues to brazenly erode democracy, the world will have their games and Putin will have his Olympia.
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