A world fair is currently being held in Dubai, with delegations from 192 countries celebrating and promoting their nation’s place in the global community. Among the attractions at Expo 2020 is Russia’s intricately designed pavilion, where visitors are invited to consider two pertinent questions:
How do we find our place in an interconnected world, and how can we better understand each other despite our differences?
Meanwhile, as missiles land on Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has completely disconnected his country, and shown no interest at all in understanding difference.
Perhaps then, Russia will not be invited to Japan’s 2025 World Expo, in the same way that it is now being excluded from many of the world’s major events. Formula One, for example, has terminated its long-term contract to hold races in the country. This was announced shortly after Russia was banned from taking part in the Winter Paralympics in Beijing.
The 2022 Champions League final was also moved from St Petersburg to Paris, and Russia’s football teams were suspended from all Uefa and Fifa competitions. Such moves may seem trivial as Ukranian lives are lost and ruined, but they do matter – and are key to a county’s economic and political success.
In peaceful times, major sporting and cultural events are important tools of “soft power”. They provide an international spotlight on a country for a fixed period of time, when a carefully curated image can be projected to a global audience.
They are also moments when countries come together to celebrate national identity and make international friends. Russia could find itself alienated indefinitely if it continues to be excluded from these social and political spaces.
It is likely even Putin himself understands this. He is thought to have been personally involved in getting Formula One into Russia, while hosting the men’s football World Cup in 2018 and the Winter Olympics in 2014 connected him to the international community.
Those same events, which Putin repeatedly used to legitimise his foreign and domestic policy agendas, are now being used to isolate him. And in a globalised society, with a globalised economy, this is a more powerful tool than it has ever been before.
Travel and tourism
Then there is the economic fallout. Hosts of an Olympic Games or a World Cup often embark on ambitious infrastructural projects, attracting international investment. The economic damage of not hosting major sports events can be significant and long-lasting.
For example, last year the Dutch Grand Prix Formula One race saw €44.5 million (£36.7 million) of additional spending around Amsterdam. Hosting the Uefa Champions League final is a lucrative opportunity too, with an estimated €80 million injected into Porto’s local economy last year. The 2018 Russia World Cup attracted more than a million tourists who spent more than 40 billion roubles (£27 million).
These sums are primarily generated by a significant flow of spectators, fans and tourists visiting the event destination – and a central objective of hosting events in the last decade. This is important to Russia, where until recently, the tourism sector was growing fast, worth approximately 3 trillion roubles (£20 billion) a year.
But no events mean no spectators, no fans and fewer tourists. Depending on how long Russia is banned from hosting major events will determine how deep the negative impact will be. In the meantime, tourist numbers will fall dramatically in response to the current political instability and banning of Aeroflot flights over EU airspace. If the war is prolonged, this will have serious implications for sectors like hospitality which are reliant on a buoyant tourism industry.
It is entirely possible that Putin considered all of this before he chose to invade Ukraine. Perhaps he decided that attempting to expand his sphere of influence through brute force was more important to him than tourists, football tournaments or good international relations. Yet having previously enjoyed the soft power benefits that sport and other events can bring, it is encouraging to the rest of the world to see those powers united – and turned against him.