(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A huge, easy-to-politicize sports event like the World Cup in a country that has been fed militant propaganda can be a risky endeavor. There’s always an undercurrent of hatred just under the surface of the merriment. This is true of the 2018 games organized by Russia. Thankfully, the bad feeling is not strong enough to cause violence.
Russia has proved a friendly, generous host to foreign players and fans. Isolated outbursts of hateful rhetoric have been widely ridiculed rather than amplified. The governor of one of the country’s regions got no support on the social networks when he tweeted that Germany lost at the group stage because “the souls of the tens of millions of victims” had “taken revenge” for the carnage of World War II. Tamara Pletnyova, a legislator, became a laughingstock when she told Russian women to avoid interracial sex with foreign fans. A Moscow tabloid did get some traction with a slut-shaming column about World Cup dalliances: Women seen with foreigners have been threatened and insulted both online and offline. No serious incidents have been reported, however, and Russian women fought back by explaining why they might prefer fit foreigners to potbellied local machos.
Nonetheless, there’s a group that really knows how to bring out the worst in Russians: Ukrainians.
After Russia lost a beautiful quarterfinal game to Croatia on July 7, a Ukrainian soccer commentator posted a video of Domagoj Vida, who scored one of Croatia’s two goals, yelling “Glory to Ukraine.” A Croatian team official sitting next to him, Ognjen Vukojevic, then can be heard saying in Russian: “This victory is for Dynamo Kiev, for Ukraine.”
This was a bigger affront to Russians than their team’s defeat. “It was a challenge, it was a provocation, and a well-prepared one,” commented Franz Klintsevich, a member of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber. “I’m glad I never supported the Croats, because they’ve always been traitors to our Slavic world. I am absolutely convinced we must use all political and diplomatic means to demand accountability for this provocation.” Another legislator, Sergei Tsekov, also demanded “sanctions” against Vida and Vukojevic for using a “Nazi” greeting.
“Glory to Ukraine!,” answered usually with “To heroes — glory,” is the traditional greeting of Ukrainian nationalists, and was first adopted by the supporters of the World War II-era separatist Stepan Bandera. To most Russians, Bandera is a Nazi sympathizer (he initially welcomed Hitler’s invasion of Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, but was soon imprisoned by the Germans for trying to establish an independent Ukrainian state). The chant became popular during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity; Vida and Vukojevic were on hand to witness the events as they both played for Dynamo Kiev.
Neither of the two Croats posted the video on the social networks: They only sent it to Kiev friends. That didn’t matter to many Russians, who reacted with indignation or at least disappointment. On the social networks, people suddenly remembered the Ustashe, the pro-Nazi Croat organization that ran the country during World War II. The tabloid Argumenti i Fakti wrote that Vida and Vukojevic “quickly increased the number of those who will support the English” when England plays Croatia in the semifinal on Wednesday. The paper warned that the offense “created conditions for tension between Croatian and Russian fans.” Another paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, ran a smear piece about Vida, recalling some drinking incidents and a 2011 fight. Even Vasily Utkin, a famous soccer commentator favored by Russian liberals and pushed out by state television, called Vida a “dunce” for potentially hurting his team.
And there could be real damage. FIFA, soccer’s global government body, is at pains to keep politics out of the game, and while it didn’t disqualify Vida, he received a warning. Meanwhile, wishing to avoid further unpleasantness, the Croatian team sent Vukojevic home.
That, in turn, set off Ukrainian patriots. A second video of Vida shouting “Glory to Ukraine,” also apparently sent to a Kiev friend, was posted, and a flashmob gathered on FIFA’s Facebook page: About 130,000 Ukrainians gave one-star-reviews, each posting “Glory to Ukraine” as a comment, before FIFA shut off the review function.
Oleksii Makeev, political director of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, tweeted that he “strongly condemned” FIFA for the “groundless sanctioning” of Vida and Vukojevic. “Instead of playing into Kremlin’s hands FIFA should adhere to principles and values,” he wrote.
Ukraine, which failed to qualify for the World Cup, has muscled into the discussion, if not into the competition itself. And indeed, Russia can’t have a carefree celebration while it holds on to annexed Ukrainian territory. Yet I don’t expect any violence against Croatian fans or players, no matter how heated the rhetoric on the social networks. Compared with the reality of friendly visitors and world-class soccer — including by the surprisingly strong Russian team — the propaganda wars have an artificial, phantom quality. Most Russians aren’t at war with Ukraine, much less with its supporters in Croatia, at least not in any physical sense.
Perhaps this is why President Vladimir Putin has largely stayed away from the games: He hasn’t attended since the opening match. His country is scoring an important, and real, victory over uninformed, unfriendly perceptions of Russia as a closed, xenophobic society. That victory is not his, and he is careful not to claim it: That would ruin the magic.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.