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Putin's bizarre FIFA comments reveal his greatest fear

Vladimir Putin in Sochi in 2012.
Vladimir Putin in Sochi in 2012.
(David Goldman — Pool/Getty Images)

Who knew Russian President Vladimir Putin cared so much about embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter?

Last night, in response to a reporter's question, Putin offered his views on the revelation that the US will prosecute a number of current and former FIFA officers for corruption. As a commentary on the prosecutions, his thoughts were utterly wrong: he claimed that there were no US citizens involved in the case (there are several), and that the alleged crimes had nothing to do with the US or its territory (they did).

But as a commentary on Putin's deepest, darkest fears about the United States, his response was quite illuminating. Putin believes the US uses its power covertly to interfere in foreign affairs, undermining unfriendly governments and then replacing them with more pliant leaders after they crumble.

That's what he thinks happened in Ukraine. That's what he thinks the US is trying to do to his regime in Russia. And apparently it's also what he thinks is behind the FIFA prosecution:

As we all know, on Friday FIFA was to elect its president, and Mr Blatter has every chance to be re-elected. We are aware of the pressure that was put on him to prevent the 2018 World Cup in Russia. We know of his views, which have nothing to do with any special relations between FIFA and Russia.

[...]

This is yet another obvious attempt to spread their jurisdiction to other states.I have no doubt that this is obviously an attempt to prevent Mr Blatter’s re-election to the post of FIFA President, which is a grave violation of the principles that international organisations function on.

Putin thinks the US has gone after FIFA now as part of a covert attempt to bring down its leader, Sepp Blatter. Who, wouldn't you know it, seems to Putin to be a friendly and right-thinking person who supported Russia's successful bid for the 2018 World Cup and has every right to remain in power.

To Putin, the FIFA prosecution is a new instance of the US aggression he fears

Vladimir Putin Jason Lee — Pool/Getty

Vladimir Putin worries. (Jason Lee — Pool/Getty)

In reality, of course, this is a pretty outlandish interpretation of events. The FIFA corruption prosecution isn't some sort of political vendetta or crazy international overreach. Rather, it arose out of wrongdoing by a US citizen, Chuck Blazer, who failed to pay any US taxes from 2005 to 2010 and then agreed to provide evidence about other FIFA wrongdoing as part of a plea agreement.

The other defendants include US citizens and a US company, along with their foreign co-conspirators. CONCACAF, one of the main FIFA regional entities at issue in the case, has its administrative offices in the US. FIFA's decision to award Russia the World Cup isn't at issue in the indictment. And Blatter isn't among the FIFA officials charged.

But that's the point: Putin's fear of US aggression and interference is so deep that he sees it everywhere, regardless of whether that's actually reasonable. His answers were based on his general concerns about the United States, not on the specifics of the FIFA case.

Putin's fear of the US has had a deep impact on the way he governs Russia. Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Russian analyst and opposition politician, explained to me in a meeting several weeks ago that Putin fears the US will use "maidan technology" (i.e., popular protests engineered from outside) to bring down his regime. That fear, Ryzhkov said, is the cause of the severe crackdown on civil liberties and freedom of association that has taken place in Russia in recent years.

Of course, there are political benefits to seeing US plots everywhere: that frame allows Putin to blame the US for Russia's problems while he takes credit for its successes. But Putin isn't just chasing an advantageous narrative. He genuinely believes the US is trying to bring down his regime, as he believes it has already done in Ukraine.

When Russia had mass protests in 2011, Ryzhkov explained, Putin was "very much afraid" that they were an outside plot sponsored by the US. "He does not believe that people came to Bolotnaya and Sakharova [the main squares where protests were held in Moscow] voluntarily. He really believes they’ve been inspired, and maybe paid, by Americans." The next year, Ukraine's Euromaidan protest movement reinforced those fears — especially when Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was photographed handing out cookies to the protesters.

When Putin looks at FIFA, he sees Russia. And when he looks at the prosecution, he sees a frightening vision of the future.


SB Nation presents: FIFA's ridiculous corruption press release, translated