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The Week In Russia: Putin Hosts World Cup, Watches G7 And Trump-Kim Summit From The Sidelines

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) attends the opening match of the soccer World Cup with FIFA President Gianni Infantino.

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Vladimir Putin welcomed soccer fans from around the globe to the first World Cup staged in Russia, got an invite of sorts from Donald Trump to rejoin the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations, and looked on from afar as Trump held a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward.

There’s surface and there's substance. On the surface, Vladimir Putin probably had his best week on the world stage since his reelection in March. He began hosting one big global event -- the soccer World Cup -- and was tapped by U.S. President Donald Trump to rejoin another -- the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations, which dumped Russia four years ago over its aggression in Ukraine.

And Trump arguably followed guidelines set out by Russia and China when he held historic face-to-face talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and said U.S.-South Korean military drills would stop.

All in all, for the Kremlin it's a far cry from the pressure-filled developments of previous weeks: A horrific shopping-mall fire that killed 60 people, most of them children; the ejection of some 150 Russian diplomats in response to a nerve-agent poisoning in England that the West blames on Moscow; new U.S. sanctions targeting tycoons close to Putin.

But beneath the surface, the benefits for Russia are unclear -- particularly in the longer term.

A World Cup soccer fan walks past T-shirts depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin on sale at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg.
A World Cup soccer fan walks past T-shirts depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin on sale at a souvenir street shop in St. Petersburg.

Barring big problems, hosting the World Cup will be a win for Putin. Despite boycotts by the British royal family and some Western officials, it shows that Russia’s actions abroad since the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi -- its seizure of Crimea, its role in the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine, its alleged involvement in election meddling and the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal -- have not made it enough of a pariah to keep the soccer fans of the world away.

Putin seemed to make that point when he thanked FIFA on the eve of the June 14-July 15 tournament for keeping "sports outside of politics" -- a remarkable comment from a president who, with the Sochi Games and now the World Cup, could be said to wield such events as one of his biggest, bluntest geopolitical tools.

Best Of Times, Worst Of Times

Add some upbeat reports from fans who have found Moscow more modern than they expected -- plus a 5-0 blowout victory in the opening match -- and you’ve got what looks like a success so far.

But Bloomberg News cited economists as saying the $11 billion extravaganza "won’t be enough to generate much of a blip in Russia’s almost $1.5 trillion economy," which Putin wants to make one of the world’s five biggest by the end of his new six-year term. It’s now in the 11th spot, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

And hosting the World Cup also trains a spotlight on problematic policies – and just plain problems – that the prestigious tournament can expose to the world but cannot fix.

There's the labor abuse and corruption-tinged crony capitalism without which, activists say, Russia could not have had roads, airports, and 12 stadiums ready-- or in some cases, perhaps not quite ready -- in time for the tournament.

A new football stadium in Yekaterinburg that was built especially for the World Cup. (file photo)
A new football stadium in Yekaterinburg that was built especially for the World Cup. (file photo)

There’s xenophobia, there’s racism, and there are human rights.

By coincidence or not, opposition politician Aleksei Navalny walked free from jail hours before the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia, after serving 30 days in detention over protests against Putin's new term -- which the incumbent won in an election from which Navalny was barred due to a criminal conviction he claims was fabricated.

In a blog post that wryly underscored the limits to the upgrades that Russia is putting on display as it hosts the World Cup, Navalny described a fancy but fictitious jail with huge flat-screen TVs, toilets "instead of holes in the floor," and a uniformed waiter bringing food that’s "better than in a restaurant."

And a few hours after Navalny was freed, British LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell was detained by police near Moscow's Red Square, where he stood alone holding a sign that said "Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people" -- a reference to accounts of a deadly campaign of persecution targeting homosexuals in the southern region ruled by Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov.

Jailed In Russia

And while the World Cup brings big audiences to Russia’s stadiums, a far darker drama is playing out in its prisons.

Crimean filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and several other Ukrainians held in Russia are still behind bars and seem likely to remain in prison long after the foreign fans have left -- if they survive, that is.

Sentsov started a hunger strike in a prison near the Arctic Circle a month before the World Cup opened and has vowed to keep at it until his demand -- the release of 64 Ukrainian citizens that he considers to be political prisoners in Russia -- is met.

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov has been jailed for 20 years in Russia. (file photo)
Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov has been jailed for 20 years in Russia. (file photo)

Rights groups say Sentsov, who was convicted on terror charges he contends were trumped up, is being targeted by Russia as part of a campaign to punish opponents of its takeover of Crimea.

But there are also plenty of Russians behind bars in their own country on charges supporters claim have been fabricated for political reasons. One of them is Oyub Titiyev, the head of the respected Russian human rights group Memorial’s office in Chechnya, who has been jailed there since police found a bag of marijuana in his car. He says it was planted.

Supporters concur, with Amnesty International saying he is being punished for working "tirelessly to help victims of grave human rights abuses in Chechnya and beyond."

G7 Or G8?

Putin has been locked out of G7 meetings since 2014 and professes to have little interest in what happens at summits of the exclusive club.

But he must have been pleased with the goings on half a world away in Canada: On his way to the June 8-9 gathering and again after leaving, Trump said Russia should be back in, making the G7 the G8 again. He also withdrew his endorsement of a summit statement that demanded Russia "cease its destabilizing behavior, to undermine democratic systems, and its support of the Syrian regime."

And Buzzfeed News, citing diplomatic sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, reported that Trump told other guests at a summit dinner that Crimea is Russian because everyone who lives there speaks Russian. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said she was unaware of such a remark and would not comment on a private conversation she was not a part of.

U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to be at odds with other world leaders at the latest G7 summit.
U.S. President Donald Trump seemed to be at odds with other world leaders at the latest G7 summit.

Trump’s statements could be seen as serving Putin’s interests on at least two levels, undermining unity on a statement critical of Russia and opening a visible rift between the United States and other Western countries. That’s something analysts say has long been part of Russia’s strategy toward the transatlantic countries: sowing divisions.

The Kremlin played it cool, seeking to score extra points by saying Russia can do without the G7, whose pronouncements Putin dismissed as "creative babbling." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow is not seeking to rejoin the G7 and is "working fine in other formats" such as the more inclusive G20, which brings in Russia's BRICS partners China, India, South Africa, and Brazil.

But several G7 members have made it plain that Russia won’t get an actual invitation any time soon, and it’s unclear whether the G7 fireworks will have any lasting effect on Western unity -- or on U.S. policy toward Russia. Two days after the G7 summit, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions targeting Russian companies that have "provided material and technological support" to the Federal Security Service (FSB).

It’s also unclear whether all this brings Putin closer to an elusive summit with Trump. There’s talk of a meeting, possibly in Vienna, but statements about the issue are sketchy and no date has been announced.

Diplomatic Challenge

Meanwhile, in a development that would have seemed unthinkable around the time he took office, Trump held a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – the first such meeting ever – before doing the same with Putin.

That in itself is a blow to Putin, who clearly hoped Trump’s election -- which U.S. intelligence agencies say he tried to help ensure by ordering an "influence campaign" targeting the vote -- would thaw ties and be followed quickly by a summit of the former Cold War superpowers.

That meeting has yet to take place, and Putin was also unable to secure a meeting with Kim before Trump's summit with the North Korean leader.

Russia ostensibly welcomed the recent summit between U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un (left).
Russia ostensibly welcomed the recent summit between U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un (left).

The summit between Trump and Kim is a double-edged sword for Putin.

On the one hand, Russian officials can claim – and quickly did claim – that Trump’s moves on North Korea are in line with a blueprint proposed by Russia and China.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the summit "proved" that Russia and Putin have been in the right when they have said "there is no alternative to political and diplomatic methods to resolve the problem on the Korean Peninsula and the only way is direct dialogue."

And Russia can celebrate Trump’s promise to hold off for now on joint U.S.-South Korean military drills, which Moscow has repeatedly and vehemently criticized. But Moscow may have to work hard to avoid being sidelined from the diplomacy on North Korea going forward.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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