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Russia is Using Football to Undermine International Sanctions over Ukraine

Despite being banned from international competitions, Russia is using football as a strategic way of building economic and diplomatic ties, writes Mark Temnycky.

Photo: Andre Paes / Alamy

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When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the international community came together to punish Russia for its behaviour. One of the actions it took was to ban the Russian Federation from various sporting organisations.

Football’s world governing body, FIFA, and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) ruled that all Russian men’s and women’s national teams and clubs would be “suspended from participation in both FIFA and UEFA competitions” until Russia ended its war. The Russian Football Union attempted to dispute the ruling, and filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but Russia’s appeal was dismissed. The ruling was upheld, and since then, Russian national teams and football clubs have missed out on several competitions, such as the men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup, the women’s 2023 FIFA World Cup, and the men’s 2024 European Championships.

Dissatisfied with FIFA’s and UEFA’s actions, and in an attempt to undermine the CAS decision, Russia has explored other avenues to participate in international football. Being involved on the world stage gives Russia additional revenue and publicity, both of which it is desperately seeking as international sanctions suck the Russian economy dry.

While the ban remains in place, Russia has undermined the football authorities. Given that a ban on international friendlies was not implemented – as these matches are not seen as competitions – the Russians have organised a series of games against numerous opponents. The money earned from these international friendly games is then cycled into the Russian economy, indirectly helping Russia finance its war in Ukraine.

Take, for example, Russia’s recent matches against Cameroon and Kenya, countries where the Russians have spread their economic and political influence. According to recent reports, Russia signed a new military cooperation agreement with Cameroon, which will help Russia generate revenue from defence sales. Meanwhile, Kenya and Russia signed a trade pact that will boost the economies of both countries.

The Russians have also played matches against Middle Eastern states such as Iran, which is helping supply arms to Russia during its ongoing invasion of Ukraine. This relationship helps keep the Russian economy afloat, and has allowed Russia to continue waging its war in Ukraine.

Engaging through these means undermines sanctions imposed by the international community and organisations. In other words, Russia’s actions imply that it will not follow internationally established rules and norms, and that it will instead opt to do whatever it pleases, believing that it will not face any consequences. And Russia will continue to spread its influence beyond economic and defence means.

Next month, the Russian women’s under-17 and under-19 teams will play international friendlies against Paraguay. This is not a coincidence. There is a pattern to Russia’s opponents. Having increased its relations with countries in Africa and the Middle East to boost its economy, increase trade, and gather more material and defence equipment for its war in Ukraine, the Russian Federation is also seeking ways to enhance its agricultural market. Take, for example, Paraguay. The Latin American country recently reported that its agrarian exports are growing. Recent statistics showed that Russia is Paraguay’s third-largest importer of soybeans. Russia was also Paraguay’s second-largest export market in 2022.

Paraguay is not the only country collaborating with Russia on agricultural matters. Cuba, another country that Russia will be playing against in an international friendly this month, has been collaborating with Russia to implement new agriculture projects. According to reports, the Cubans have opted to grant land to Russian agricultural producers for 30 years. They are also working to modernise agrarian technology and equipment.

Russia playing international friendly matches with these countries should not be dismissed as some insignificant sporting event, but seen clearly instead as the Russian Federation working strategically to undermine sanctions that the international community and organisations have imposed on it for its war in Ukraine.

Therefore, the globe must strategise how to punish Russia for its war. Previous attempts to punish it, such as imposing harsh economic penalties, banning it from international organisations, and removing bank accounts from the SWIFT global monetary system, have not stopped Russia’s war. It will take additional efforts to end the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps implementing a total ban on Russian sports teams and sporting events would finally cease Russian operations in Ukraine. The world will not know unless it tries.

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