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Football, Eurovision and business rush to ditch links to Moscow over Ukraine invasion


The Royal Opera House cancelled a season of performances by Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Ballet, European football’s governing body took the Champions League final away from St Petersburg, and a host of Russian businesses were rocked by resignations of big-name European directors. In the hours and days following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that Russia is no longer a welcome member of western society.

For a long time, Russia appeared to be working tirelessly on its “soft power” credentials, spending billions of roubles to portray itself as a welcoming member of the international community, one that was a victim of western bias and “Russophobia”.

Despite the Crimean annexation of 2014 and the jailing of opposition leaders, the Kremlin often looked to be successful in its mission, winning the rights to host leading sporting and cultural events, giving it a global platform to carefully construct its image for the outside world.

“Do not try to paint with a dark paint everything that comes from the east,” Fifa’s president Gianni Infantino said during the build-up to the 2018 football World Cup, referring to the tournament’s host, Russia.

A year after the event, Infantino returned to Moscow to receive a state medal from Putin, whom he thanked for hosting the “best World Cup ever”.

“The world has created bonds of friendship with Russia that will last for ever,” a smiling Infantino said. The “for ever” friendship lasted until Thursday, when Putin ordered his troops to enter Ukraine, unleashing a bloody war that had been unimaginable to many.

“Russia has become as toxic as it gets for the west, and the war is not yet over,” said Russian political analyst Anton Barbashin. “We can’t even start to imagine what kind of price all us Russians and the Russian state will have to pay for this.”

The International Olympic Committee has called on all sports federations to cancel any events in Russia, while Uefa is said to be considering ending Gazprom’s sponsorship of the Champions League. On Friday Manchester United dropped Aeroflot as their sponsor, while the Poland and Sweden national football teams said they would refuse to play Russia in March World Cup qualifiers, putting Moscow’s participation in the tournament it hosted just four years ago into question.

The country will also be excluded from this year’s Eurovision song contest, with organisers saying its participation could “bring the competition into disrepute”.

But the repercussions of Russia’s actions will stem far beyond exclusion from sporting and cultural events.

Europe’s far-right, which for a long time idolised the country as leading the conservative front against the “woke” west, rushed to condemn their former ally’s actions.

French far-right politician Marine Le Pen on Thursday called Russia’s moves unjustified, and said they must be condemned “without ambiguity.”

Anton Shekhovstov, the director of the Centre for Democratic Integrity and the author of the book, Russia and the Western Far Right, said Europe’s populists had no choice but to reject Russia.

“There is an unprecedented consensus in Europe condemning the Russian aggression. The country is so toxic that even the far right have to distance themselves from them,” he said

Strongmen in central and eastern Europe, who for years looked to Putin as an alternative to the liberal western model of democracy, similarly reacted in shock.

Yesterday Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, previously considered Putin’s closest EU ally, said Hungary would support all EU sanctions against Russia.

Czech President Miloš Zeman, who had in the past pushed for warm relations with Moscow, said Russia’s attack on Ukraine was a “crime against peace”.

“A few days ago, I said that the Russians were not crazy and that they would not attack Ukraine. I admit I was wrong,” Zeman said.

The invasion has also led to a mass exodus of former European officials from the boards of state-owned Russian companies. For years, the Kremlin had been wooing former western officials, a strategy seen as one of Russia’s last instruments in garnering political leverage among elites in the west. Last Thursday the former prime ministers of Finland and Italy and the ex-chancellor of Austria resigned from boards of Russian companies.

Christian Kern, Austria’s former chancellor, said he had “no choice” but to quit from the board of Russian Railways (RZD).

“RZD had now actually become part of Russian war logistics,” Kern told local media.

“My thoughts are with the victims of this senseless aggression.”

Former French prime minister Francois Fillon, who has previously criticised the west for its handling of the Ukrainian crisis on Friday resigned from the boards of two Russian firms in protest.

“This is a collective failure, but in the hierarchy of responsibilities, Vladimir Putin alone is guilty of having started a preventable conflict,” Fillon wrote in an opinion piece published in the French weekly paper Le Journal du Dimanche.

Pressure will be put on Germany’s former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a self-described “friend” of Vladimir Putin who continues to sit on the board of a number of prominent Russian companies, including the sanctioned Rosneft firm.

Back in Moscow,Putin last Thursday gathered more than 30 top executives and business owners in the Kremlin, seeking support in the face of western sanctions.

Many in the room, like Alfa-Bank founder Petr Aven and Novatek chairman Leonid Mikhelson, have in the past mingled in western high society, collaborating with major European art and cultural institutions while owning elite property across Europe. While veteran businessmen like Aven have not been hit personally by sanctions, experts believe the standing of rich Russians in the west will be tarnished.

“It will be much harder for the oligarchs to show their faces in London. My guess is that they will try to somehow portray an image that they don’t support this invasion,” said Elisabeth Schimpfössl, who has published research on the Russian elite abroad.

The Russian leader will demand “total loyalty” from the business elite, she said. “In the eyes of Putin, you are either with him or against him. Any middle ground is now gone.”



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