How To Take Down Putin

How To Take Down Putin

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Vladimir Putin as a Roman emperor in a village near St. Petersburg.

Boycotting the World Cup would be one hard lesson for Russians of the consequences of being led by disreputable men.

You don’t need to mention 1936 to know dictatorships place great stock in hosting major international sporting events. They confer legitimacy; they project virility. Denying both to Vladimir Putin should be a part of any plan to unseat him.

So it’s instructive and amusing to read former FIFA official Chuck Blazer’s account, on his personal blog, of his 2010 meeting with Mr. Putin, shortly before Russia won the right to host the 2018 World Cup.

“At one moment he looked at me with a very serious gaze and said, without cracking a smile, ‘You know, you look like Karl Marx,’ ” Mr. Blazer recounted of his meeting. “I simply winked at him and said, ‘I know.’ This brought an immediate response with him lifting his right arm up in the air and thrusting it forward to give me my first High-5 from a Prime Minister.”

Score one for Karl.

Mr. Blazer wound up voting for Russia’s bid, having initially favored Britain’s. He has since confessed to accepting millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks in connection with the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and at least four international tournaments in the Americas. The Russian government, for its part, has a reputation for being generous toward its foreign friends.

There’s no need to put two and two together here, since the FBI and Swiss prosecutors are taking a closer look at the Russian bid and FIFA may wind up revoking it. But why not at least threaten a boycott of the Cup for as long as Russian troops remain in Ukraine? The average Russian couldn’t care less that the deputy prime minister is under international sanctions for Moscow’s seizure of Crimea. But soccer-mad Russians would care, a lot, if the games were taken from them.

Particularly if the reason for it is properly explained. As of last November, a poll found that a narrow majority of Russians seem to believe Mr. Putin when he insists “outright and unequivocally that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine.” But that lie is becoming harder to sustain in the face of the hundreds of Russian military deaths sustained in the conflict, which is why Mr. Putin ordered last week that Russian fatalities in peacetime “special operations” be kept a state secret.

Vladimir’s splendid little war is becoming less splendid. Warning Russians that their precious World Cup may be boycotted on account of Mr. Putin’s adventures would underscore the unsplendid part.

This is what the G-7 leaders, starting with Barack Obama, failed to understand when they decided over the weekend to maintain economic sanctions on Russia for at least a few more months. They think the primary point of sanctions is to be punitive, economically speaking, when they ought to be pedagogical, morally and politically speaking. What Russians need isn’t more financial upheaval and deprivation. (They’ve seen worse.) They need re-education in how an ostensibly great nation behaves in the modern world.

The point was brought home by the same November poll, which found that a plurality of Russians, or 43%, would approve of Mr. Putin sending Russian soldiers to Ukraine in spite of his denials. In other words, they don’t mind being lied to by their president, because they share his territorial and ethnic ambitions.

Such is the combination of cynicism and grandiosity that lies at the heart of Russia’s political pathology and that Mr. Putin has so skillfully exploited. Too frequently, Russians have no expectations as to the probity or decency of their leaders. But they have great expectations of their entitlements as a world power. It needs to be the opposite.

Boycotting the 2018 Cup, or showing that it was gained by corrupt means (and thereby lost), would be one hard lesson for Russians of the consequences of being led by disreputable men. A policy of arming Ukraine so that it can inflict heavier—and undeniable—losses on its invaders is another.

So too would be a much broader application of the Magnitsky Act, which imposes travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials suspected of corruption and human-rights abuses. The current list covers 30 people. Expand it 10- or 50-fold, and you could even start to make Mr. Putin unpopular within the Kremlin.

Since taking power 15 years ago, Mr. Putin has proved a master at self-reinvention, by turns a modernizer or a traditionalist, a capitalist or a conqueror, a populist or an emperor—all in ways that have consolidated his power without running afoul of public opinion. The worst he’s done is alienate the intelligentsia and middle classes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, who have obliged him by leaving the country.

If Mr. Putin is to be taken down, it will only happen when the rest of the country swings against him, not necessarily because he’s made them poorer, but because he’s humiliated them. When it comes to humiliation, nothing is so bad as an own-goal, both in soccer and in war. Time to force the play.

Write to bstephens@wsj.com.

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