I was surprised, given how much the glow of the nationalism-suffused World Cup was still lingering in the air during the horrific intensification of violence in and around Ukraine, that it took so long for Westerners to call for the removal of the 2018 FIFA World Cup from Russia—but the calls have started to come in, ranging from allies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British politician Nick Clegg, and representatives of the Dutch Football Association.
No government spokesperson has yet backed up such calls, and indeed both the German government and FIFA have thus far decisively rejected such calls. Indeed, FIFA has vigorously countered efforts to punish Russia by moving the venue of the 2018 World Cup, arguing that past boycotts of sporting events have proven “not the most effective way of solving problems,” while insisting that the World Cup can be a “powerful catalyst for constructive dialogue between people and governments.”
We still do not know who exactly brought down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, of course, though it is clear from the very cautious moves towards pressuring Russia that these actions are more about compelling more active participation in investigation than in responding to clear blame. Moreover, the intense violence ravaging Eastern Ukraine clearly spills beyond this particular incident, with the stunning rewriting of sovereign boundaries depending upon highly unstable ethnonational differences that thrive most in open conflict. As I have written about more than once, the ethnonational energies driving the crisis in Ukraine is profoundly destabilizing and threatens a return to much of the unsparing partisan conflict of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Given the profound linkage between the World Cup and nationalism (about which I have written here, here, here, and, more generally in terms of nation-based competition, here), it is quite apropos to link the venue of the 2018 World Cup with this Russo-Ukrainian conflict. It is hard not to recall that Russia, which clearly basked in the international attention of hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, not long afterwards performed what to me seems the most astounding and destabilizing move throughout this conflict—moving to secure the annexation of the Crimea—an action with profound territorial, economic, and diplomatic consequences that, as these articles assert, either fades into the background of current coverage of the conflict or is in fact seen as a done deal.
The combination of symbolic struggle, nationalist competition, and, perhaps most importantly, massive flows of transnational wealth, make the 2018 venue of the World Cup an interesting focus for the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. I will look closely at the language used to discuss this dimension of the conflict, since this is a potential sanction with such super-charged symbolism as to possibly radically alter the conversation. Prestige could be on the line—and this has a market value that is very difficult to assess.