British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has compared the coming soccer World Cup, due to be held in Russia this summer, to the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany. To no one's surprise, Russia fired back with its own blistering critique of Britain's top diplomat.
“I think the comparison to 1936 is certainly right,” Johnson told the British Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, before suggesting that the thought of Russian President Vladimir reveling in the World Cup made him feel sick. “I think it's an emetic prospect, frankly, to think of Putin glorying in this sporting event.”
The British diplomat was agreeing with a statement from Ian Austin, a member of Parliament from the opposition Labour Party, who had suggested that Putin wants to “gloss over [his] brutal, corrupt regime” with the World Cup, one of the most-watched sporting events in the world.
Asked about Johnson's criticism on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called it an “utterly disgusting statement,” adding that it was “unworthy of a foreign minister of any country.”
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, went further in comments published on her Facebook account late Wednesday — accusing Johnson of being “poisoned by hatred, anger, unprofessionalism and boorishness.”
Comparisons with Nazi Germany are especially controversial in Russia. The Soviet Union lost more than 20 million people during World War II and was the site of much of Europe's worst fighting between 1941 and 1944. To this day, the Russian state frequently commemorates the sacrifices made during the war.
Germany hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics in 1936, just three years after Adolf Hitler seized power. Initially, Germany tried to bar Jewish and nonwhite athletes from the Games, though Hitler backed down after threats of a boycott. Most countries participated, despite criticism of the Nazis. The Soviet Union did not participate in any Olympic events until 1952.
At a news conference on Thursday, Russian Ambassador to Britain Alexander Yakovenko brought up the Soviet Union's World War II history. “No one has the right to insult the Russian people, who defeated Nazism and sacrificed more than 25 million lives in that fight, by comparing our country to Nazi Germany,” Yakovenko said.
Johnson's remarks came amid continuing fallout over the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter this month in the town of Salisbury in southern England. Johnson said Friday that it was “overwhelmingly likely” that Putin was behind the poisoning. British authorities say Novichok, a nerve agent developed by the Soviet Union and its successor, the Russian Federation, was used in the poisoning.
In the aftermath of the attack on Skripal, British Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to expel 23 Russian diplomats identified as having links to espionage. Russi, in turn, expelled 23 British diplomats and closed the British Council, a government-backed international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities in the country.
On Wednesday, Austin said the idea of Putin using the World Cup as “a PR exercise to gloss over the brutal, corrupt regime for which he is responsible” filled him with horror.
Johnson has previously suggested that some British officials may boycott the World Cup. However, he said Wednesday that it would be wrong to punish British fans or the English soccer team by banning them from attending the World Cup, although an “urgent conversation” would be needed with Moscow about how the fans would be protected.
The foreign secretary also told the committee that far fewer Britons had bought tickets for the World Cup in Russia compared with the 2014 event in Brazil. Britain's most senior police officer warned last year that English football fans risked encountering an “extreme level of violence” from Russian hooligans if they attended the sporting event.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said Wednesday that boycotts of the 2018 World Cup would be fruitless. “If some officials refuse coming here, it is their personal business,” Dvorkovich said, according to the Tass news agency. “The history shows that boycotts never led to something good.”
“This will be the best world championship ever,” he said. “Our country is very hospitable, and we are waiting for everyone here.”
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