The UEFA Euro 2016 has seen the usual hooliganism. What would soccer–football, excuse me–be without it? (Isn’t it interesting how the “beautiful game” routinely sparks violence while a game denigrated for violence–American football–seldom does?)
Nothing new about that. What makes Euro 2016 somewhat unique is the focus on Russian hooligans, and the attribution of malign political motives to them, and most importantly, direction from the very top.
The English mixed it up with the Russians in Marseille, and got the worst of it. The English press was whinging about the unfairness of it all. Apparently, as opposed to being fat, drunken louts like proper English hooligans, the Russians were hard, sober toughs. That’s not cricket!
Englishman Tim Newman–whom I’m honored comments periodically here–was having none of it:
You’ve got to love the British press:
England fan fighting for his life and dozens more injured as English fans and Russian thugs clash at Euro 2016 in Marseille
The English were fans. The Russians were thugs. Presumably no Englishman in Marseille last night displayed thuggish behaviour, and no Russian showed the slightest interest in football.
. . . .
But what I never heard, in all my time in Phuket or indeed ever in my life, was a story told to me by non-Brit complaining of getting into a fight with another non-Brit. For whatever reason, Frenchmen don’t seem to end up fighting Spaniards in beach resorts and Germans somehow manage to rub along all right with Italians on holiday without kicking the shit out of one another. The common element in all the fighting in beach resorts across the world, particularly the Mediterranean, is the presence of young Brits. Little surprise then that the only trouble seen thus far at the Euro 2016 tournament features the same demographic.
There were battles involving other nationalities pretty much everywhere matches were played. It’s what those oh-so-civilized Euros do.
It may well be true that the Russians were fitter, better trained, and more organized, and kicked ass as a result. It may well also be true that members of the Russian security forces and veterans of the Donbas were among the Ultras. But to claim that this is part of “Putin’s special war” is beyond idiotic.
One of the main pieces of “evidence” that have been trotted out to suggest official complicity are the Tweets of Duma deputy speaker Igor Lebedev: “I don’t see anything bad in the fans fighting. On the contrary, well done guys. Keep it up!” and “I don’t understand those politicians and bureaucrats who are now denouncing our fans. We need to defend them, and they’ll come home and we’ll sort it out.”
Deputy Speaker of the Duma. Sounds pretty official and important, right? Except that (a) the Duma is merely a Potemkin legislature, and (b) people like Lebedev (who is a member of Zhirinovsky’s party) are in the Duma precisely to provide an outlet for the nationalist loons: better to have them inside the Duma where they can be watched and controlled and do no harm, than out on the streets making trouble.
It’s actually embarrassing to cite someone like Lebedev as a barometer of official Kremlin (i.e., Putin) policy. It’s a case of those who are talking don’t know, and those who know aren’t talking.
And really, you have to pick a narrative. Those pushing the story that Russian soccer hooligans are conducting special warfare in Europe also portray Putin as a mastermind playing chess, and dominating ineffectual and overmatched European and American leadership. But these claims are almost impossible to reconcile.
At the very time that Europe is vacillating about maintaining sanctions against Russia, and there are deep divisions within Europe about whether to confront Russia more forcefully (moves that German FM Steinmeier called “saber rattling”), the soccer hooligans are an irritant in the Russian-European relationship. No, Putin is not about be all warm and fuzzy, but he has no reason to engage in provocations that alienate the German and French governments, but which produce no tactical or strategic benefit.
In the realm of sport in particular, this couldn’t come at a worse time. Russia’s reputation is already at rock bottom due to the doping scandal which has resulted in the banning of Russian track and field athletes from the Olympics, and could conceivably result in the barring of Russian participation from Rio altogether. Hardly an opportune time to cast Russian sportsmanship in an even worse light.
It would be incredibly short sighted and unproductive for Putin stoke soccer violence. What could he gain? Nothing that I can see. However, it is easy to see what it costs him: it increases the likelihood that sanctions will endure, and provides an argument for those advocating a more muscular approach to Russia.
Yes. Maybe Putin is that short-sighted and capable of cutting his nose to spite his face. But if that’s the case, he’s the antithesis of a strategic genius. He would be nothing more than a mouth-breathing numb-nuts like Lebedev.
Conversely, if you choose the “Putin is a chess master” narrative, the Russian soccer thuggery suggests that the vaunted power vertical is not all encompassing, and that Putin does not exercise the complete control that is often attributed to him–perhaps not even over the security services. (His reorganization of those services supports this interpretation: why reorganize something that is completely at his beck and call?)
My take on all of this is that there are indeed a lot of obnoxious, violent Russians–just like there are a lot of obnoxious, violent Euros from any nation you care to name. Soccer hooliganism has become a Euro tradition, and the Russians are joining in: chalk it up to their integration into Europe! But as for broader political implications, if Russian soccer hooligans have official sanction, Putin isn’t very clever: indeed, he would have all the strategic acumen of the criminals in Fargo. And if they don’t have official sanction, Putin isn’t as omnipotent within Russia as he is widely portrayed.
Sometimes hooligans are just hooligans. Putin no doubt finds that hooligans have their political uses, but stirring trouble in Europe at such a fraught time isn’t one of them.