World Cup 2018: Behind the scenes on Putin's oil deals and diplomatic wrangling

15 june 2018

Oliver Carroll is an independent journalist covering Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Resume: ‘We have to convince people that Russia is a normal country, not the caricature published in Western newspapers’

Just a few months ago, as news of the poisoning of a Russian double agent in Salisbury broke, the prospect of a significant World Cup boycott was real.

Today, while Western leaders are hardly lining up to lend their faces to the Russian celebrations, those fears have not materialised. And the Kremlin is instead hoping that for the next month it will be at the centre of the global stage.

During the course of the championship, as Russia’s political beau monde mingles with world leaders, it is possible that a deal or two will be made. While President Putin’s guestlist so far has been less than inspiring – Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Bolivia, Lebanon and Armenia – the Kremlin hopes things will change as the tournament goes on.

Today is the turn of the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The meeting, held ahead of the opening Saudi vs Russia fixture, has been heralded as the major networking event of the tournament. It will almost certainly prove more consequential than the football match, given the recent form of both teams.

The meeting will not quite repeat the razzmatazz of King Salman’s state visit to Russia last October, when a 200-strong delegation shut down central Moscow and took over all of its five-star hotels.

This time, only a few dozen delegates have travelled to Russia. Moscow nonetheless hopes to make major progress – on a new oil pact, and in inking in some of the agreements made last year.

Relations between the two countries remain nuanced. On a multitude of issues, their interests are diametrically opposed.

Russia is now a close military partner of Iran, the Saudis’ major regional rival. Another Saudi foe, Qatar, is now the major foreign investor in Russian energy resources. And on relations with the United States, they stand in opposite corners.

But cooperation on oil, which has helped rescue the Russian budget, along with the Kremlin’s increasingly prominent role in the Middle East, has brought the two countries together.

“There is still lots of mistrust, but it’s a pragmatic, compartmentalised relationship on both sides,” says Yuri Barmin, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council.

“The Saudis get Russian support on energy policy, and a say on Syria, while Russia gets recognition in the Arab world.”

Oil was expected be the major focus of Thursday’s meeting, with Russia pushing for a major relaxation of the global production cut agreed with OPEC in 2016.

Russia is said to want a return to 2016 levels of production, which would amount to an additional 1,800 barrels a day. Riyadh favours a much more modest cut.

But the Kremlin is also looking to extract more concrete commitments on the investment and defence agreements concluded during last October’s historic summit.

The two countries signed a memorandum of intent that would see the Saudis acquire Russia’s latest-generation S400 air defence deal. But according to some reports, the Saudis have decided to withdraw from the deal.

“There is a lot of thinking in Riyadh that sees Russia as a way to leverage the relationship with the Unites States,” says Barmin. “And Moscow is worried it is being used.”

After the Saudi meeting, Vladimir Putin was set for talks with senior North Korean official Kim Yong-nam. Coming so soon after the historic US-Korean summit in Singapore, the meeting’s outcomes are likely to be watched closely.

Further down the schedule list, the stardust disappears altogether.

Speaking on Tuesday, a Kremlin spokesperson could only confirm that Moldova, Kirghizia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Panama and the internationally unrecognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia would attend World Cup festivities.

No major Western leader has yet RSVPd to the Kremlin, despite rumours of an imminent visit from President Donald Trump himself.

When pushed at a press conference in St Petersburg last month, French president Emmanuel Macron said he would visit if his national team progresses to the next stage.

Fyodor Lukyanov, an expert considered close to Russia’s foreign policy elite, says he does not expect any major diplomatic breakthrough from the tournament.  

There are too few unexpected faces, he says, and the majority of diplomatic attendees are already regular visitors to the Russian capital.

“I remember when diplomacy only seemed to work at the funerals of Soviet leaders, when foreign delegations arrived in Moscow to pay respects,” he says.

“But that was 35 years ago – you don’t need that now.”

The Kremlin set few international relations goals from the tournament, says Andrey Sushentsov, programme director of the Valdai Club, an elite discussion club linked to the Kremlin.

“The task has always been to avoid major reputational damage,” says Sushentsov.

“Now that’s been achieved, we have to convince people that Russia is a normal country, not the caricature published in Western newspapers.”

Lyukyanov said Russia was not counting on a PR breakthrough.

“The image of Russia has long already been formed in the West,” he says.

“Whatever you do, nothing will change. You should only expect things to get worse. It is senseless to hope for anything else.”

The Independent

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