Make Russia Share the World Cup with Ukraine

It's time to start thinking about the pitfalls of the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.

Many good ideas start off sounding crazy; so bear with me.  In the current crisis between Russia and the West over Ukraine, the EU and USA have gifted Russia what might be called ‘escalation preference’. Russia has been able to de-escalate and re-escalate at will, a little at a time. The West has been too reactive and seemed incapable of game-changing measures that force Russia to rethink its tactics. Sanctions are already hurting Russia, but Putin has shown little sign of bending to the pressure. Something more is needed.

So here’s one suggestion. Russia is due to host the 2018 World Cup Finals. Why not make them co-host with Ukraine? Ukraine successfully co-hosted the 2012 European Championship Finals with Poland; so it already has the infrastructure that Russia cannot now afford to build – apart from Donetsk’s shiny new airport, built for an estimated $750 million, which is now a ruin. But Russia would not bomb co-hosting facilities. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi produced an unprecedented corruption bonanza for ‘Putin’s Friends’; 2018 could be even worse. And the other worry over the 2018 Finals, unlike the heat in Qatar in 2022, was always travel distances. Co-hosting with Ukraine would make the Finals more compact.

And Ukraine has set a great example this season by hosting Shakhtar Donetsk Champions’ League games in its traditional rival city of Lviv, where by all accounts the supposedly rabidly Ukrainian nationalist fans of the local team Karpaty Lviv have proved excellent hosts, swapping to Shakhtar flags and chants.

FIFA might be assumed incapable of making such a decision. But the 2014 Wold Cup is already finished and 2018 isn’t that far away. No World Cup finals have been held in, or next to, a war zone. The 1978 finals in Argentina were beset by human rights worries. The 1970 finals are remembered as the era of o jogo bonito, but came after protests at the 1968 Olympics. In South Africa in 2010 the main (exaggerated) worry was crime – not being in a conflict zone. A Russia beset by internal problems and possibly still in some kind of hot or cold war with Ukraine would not be the ideal host.

And Russia has just published the list of host cities for 2018. As well as Sochi, matches will be held in Rostov-on-Don; which is not only just east of the war-zone on the flight path of the doomed airliner MH17, but has been an active centre for supplying the rebels in the Donbas since last spring. And it is regularly alleged to be the exile base of the Yanukovych ‘Family’, for pumping funds and influence back into the Donbas. Anyone fancy booking their holidays in Rostov for the summer of 2018?

Andrew Wilson’s latest book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for the West was published on 14 October, as both paperback and e-book. You can read an extract here, or listen to a podcast here.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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