Vladimir Putin thinks he's being smart by hosting the World Cup in Russia. After all, owning one of the world's biggest sporting events is a major source of international prestige, an opportunity to win the adoration and accolades of the world while casting the host country in the most favorable possible light, and therefore a tremendous boon to Russia ... right?
Wrong. Hosting the World Cup is a fool's bargain.
What does Russia ostensibly get out of this? Good PR? I don't think so. Everyone has already made up their mind about Putin's Russia. Sure, hundreds of thousands of fans are going to visit Russia, and hundreds of millions are going to watch the games on TV or online. But will they suddenly be struck by amnesia about everything relating to, say, Crimea, Syria, or Putin's meddling in democratic elections? Next time Syria or Crimea comes up for a vote at the U.N., which ambassador is going to think, "You know, I was going to vote against Russia, but that Spain-Nigeria game was so smashing, I'll vote for Putin now!"
Obviously, no one will think this way. And rest assured that any mention of Putin in the Western media within the context of the World Cup is likely to come in the same breath as mentions of his many transgressions. When Russia hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 2014, that became — justifiably — a very good excuse for a flood of stories critical of Putin's Russia. (And, by the way, who remembers those Games at all now? I bet you'd forgotten about Sochi until I just mentioned it.)
Now, I'm not being naïve. Soft power does matter, and yes, if tons of people travel to Russia and have fun, they might have, if only at some semi-conscious level, better impressions of Russia. And yes, that might, at the margin, have a tiny impact on the public perception of Russia, and Putin, which might in turn have, maybe, some impact on how governments respond to Russia.
But even if Putin does get such benefits — a dubious assumption in its own right — what of the costs?
Russia reportedly spent $10 billion on the World Cup, and the true number is almost certainly a lot higher given the levels of graft and corruption in Putin's Russia. As far as PR campaigns go, that's incredibly expensive. Granted, not all of the $10 billion goes to PR; upgrading airports and railways and hotels and the like definitely has value. But this is not really the point.
I will concede that there's an argument that for democracies, where desirable infrastructure projects tend to get bogged down in NIMBYism and red tape, hosting a major international event like this is a good way to work yourself up to the sort of determination that causes these projects to actually get finished. But that's not true of Putin's Russia. As a dictator, he'll pursue whatever projects he wants, and presumably if he believed Russia needed those airport upgrades, he would have appropriated the money. No, Putin pursued the World Cup because he wanted the PR, and so it's on those merits that it needs to be judged.
Maybe Putin will win a smidge of PR or prestige from this World Cup. Maybe. But those benefits will be completely dwarfed by the costs. Money is fungible and resources are limited. The more money he spends on stadiums, the less he spends on troll farms, which are clearly a much better value for money in terms of global influence.
If you're against Putin, you should actually be celebrating that he's hosting the World Cup — because he just scored a brutal own goal against his own side. Now you can enjoy the games.