Dancing on Ice: Russia, Hockey, and Soft Power
Photo: Pawel Maryanov/Flickr.
Sport is a greatly underestimated avenue of Kremlin influence. Yet using it to project a positive image of Russia is very much central to the Kremlin’s agenda. Through the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Vladimir Putin is using sport to score points for ‘Brand Russia’ in one of the hardest of playing fields of all- the very heart of Central and Eastern Europe.
When Latvia and Slovakia’s biggest ice-hockey teams meet this season, they will not be taking part in a European competition. They will be playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, a Russia-dominated championship also home to teams from Belarus, China, Finland, Latvia, Kazakhstan, and Slovakia.
In an age where fear of Kremlin influence in Eastern Europe runs riot, it is apparent that influence in the form of sport is flying under the radar.
Russia’s premier ice-hockey competition has Vladimir Putin’s stamp all over it, and the league’s sporting objectives lay side by side with those of the Kremlin. Started on the president’s initiative in 2008, the competition is directed by members of his much-vaunted ‘inner circle’ and financed by a combination of state-owned companies and Putin’s oligarchy. With this in mind, it is somewhat remarkable that the league has established firm frontiers within the region perhaps most concerned by Kremlin influence.
Behind Enemy Lines
By operating an entertaining and high-quality sports league in the Eastern European region, Russia hopes to craft a more favourable public opinion of itself in a region where this is extremely difficult. The KHL allows Russia to project itself as a friendly, even brotherly nation to states such as Slovakia and Latvia who hold full EU and NATO memberships. Slovakia has long been a haven of pro-Russian public sentiment within the EU, and the positive reflection of Russia that the KHL provides will do absolutely no harm to this image at all.
Bringing the KHL to cities like Riga and Bratislava capitalises not only upon a shared love of hockey, but on a distinct area of Russian competitive advantage. On the whole, Ice-hockey in Western Europe simply cannot compete with the Russian version in terms of either quality or level of interest in the sport. All in one go, Russia can highlight cultural differences between East and West, promote common ground with the region and Russia, and, most importantly, display itself as the dominant force in the relationship.
Another major boon of the KHL is the link it provides from motherland to diaspora. With Russian teams playing and the logos of Russian partner companies all around, it would be easy for an ethnic Russian to feel like they were at home and under the care of the Kremlin again. This is particularly pertinent in the Baltics, where Russian minorities still comprise a significant portion of the population. The prospect of a Russian diaspora with an enhanced sense of connection to their home country and government would undoubtedly disturb a great many in the region. Yet amidst fixation on scarier ‘hybrid warfare’ techniques deemed more newsworthy, the soft-power of Russian sport is seemingly ignored.
On the subject of Russian companies, it is one thing for them to gain positive PR from association with sporting competitions back home. But the fact that they are doing it on the sanctioned territory of the EU is quite extraordinary. Whilst European bureaucrats wage economic penalties against Russia, European hockey fans cheer a league organised and sponsored by the very people the sanctions target. In both a political and an economic sense, the KHL is scoring public relations victories behind enemy lines.
A Double-Edged Sword
It is easy to forget that the benefits of soft-power run both ways. In Riga and Bratislava, the KHL provides fans in the region with a rare opportunity to watch high-class sporting fare in person and not just on television. An average of 9000 fans watch Slovan Bratislava home matches, and the sale of tickets, jerseys, and refreshments to fans creates significant revenue and employment.
The KHL’s presence in Central and Eastern Europe not only enhances the options available to citizens in their free time, but also comes with definite economic advantages. So what’s the big deal? There are clear benefits to the host countries, and after all, it’s only a sports league. What does it matter that the Russian state benefits as well?
It is essential to remember that sport is part of the very same propaganda machine that has been used to facilitate the annexation of Crimea, demonise the West, and bolster Putin’s authoritarian power. Even if sporting overtures seem far removed from techniques such as disinformation and propaganda, they work in tandem with them towards the same goals.
As Russian hockey stars sparkle in Eastern European arenas, it is not improved public opinion of Russia per se that is worrying. What causes concern is how Putin and the Kremlin may attempt to utilise this in their quest to regain sway in Central and Eastern Europe.
Joseph Taylor works at the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office, specialising in Russia and Eastern Europe.