June 22, 2018 / 3:49 PM / 3 months ago

World Cup helps Putin step up his diplomacy

MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin hosted the first official visit by a South Korean president to Russia since 1999 on Friday, in the latest of a series of meetings he has secured with international guests on the sidelines of the soccer World Cup.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Increasingly isolated on the global stage, Putin has used the World Cup to send a defiant message to his opponents that Russia is succeeding despite Western efforts to hold it back.

The tournament has also allowed him to step up his diplomacy and discuss everything from Syria to North Korea in a short space of time, projecting the impression that he is at the centre of international affairs.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters ahead of the World Cup that it would be about Russian diplomacy, as well as soccer.

“There will constantly be lots of heads of state and government coming to different matches,” he said.

“It will not just be a huge, global celebration of sport, but also an intense flow of guests at the highest level.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who met Putin in the Kremlin and will travel to watch his national side take on Mexico in Rostov-on-Don on Saturday, is one of at least seven high-profile visitors the Russian president has had since the World Cup started last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and South Korean President Moon Jae-in attend a welcoming ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

SIDELINE DIPLOMACY

Putin has played host to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, later laughing and joking with his guest as Russia thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the World Cup opening match, leaders from Panama and Senegal and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Away from the Kremlin, Japan’s Princess Takamado travelled to the World Cup host city of Saransk to watch the Japanese team compete, marking the first visit to Russia by a member of Japan’s royal family since 1916.

Putin told Moon on Friday that Russia intended to continue playing its part in the search for a solution to the confrontation on the Korean Peninsula.

The Russian and South Korean leaders were meeting after a historic summit in Singapore between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Some Kremlin-watchers point out that Putin’s visitors are largely from countries already friendly to the Kremlin. The guest list at the World Cup opening ceremony was heavy with leaders from Central Asia.

Major breakthroughs with countries such as Britain and France, who have clashed with the Kremlin over its actions in Syria and the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, are still a long way off, they say.

But hosting the world’s biggest soccer tournament could bring diplomatic rewards for Putin, partly depending on the results on the pitch.

French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, said at an economic forum in St Petersburg last month he would travel to Russia if France reached the semi-finals.

France qualified for the last-16 stage of the tournament on Thursday after beating Peru 1-0.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in following the talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia June 22, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Andrew Roche

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