On Thursday afternoon, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin posted a photo of himself and Russian president Vladimir Putin with the leader’s arm on Ovechkin’s shoulder. In the caption, the hockey superstar announced he was forming the “Putin Team” to support the Russian leader as he runs for reelection. But the outcome is not in doubt.
The leading opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, is routinely jailed and may not be on the ballot. Instead, only parties deemed safe to the government usually contest elections. Putin will win a six-year term in office.
What is more, unlike its U.S. equivalent, the Russian Constitution only prohibits serving two presidential terms “in a row.” Nothing prevents Putin from stepping down briefly, as he did in 2008, only to run for still another pair of six-year terms in the future.
Личные награды и призы – все это здорово, но в хоккее, как и в любом деле, для победы важнее команда. Только команда способна переломить ход игры, сделать невозможное. В последнее время в западной прессе я встречаю сочетание Putin’s team, то есть команда Путина. И знаете, мне очень понравилось это определение. Лично я готов быть частью такой команды. Я никогда не скрывал своего отношения к нашему Президенту, всегда открыто его поддерживая. Я уверен, что нас, поддерживающих Владимира Путина, много! Так давайте объединимся и покажем всем сильную и сплоченную Россию! Сегодня я хочу объявить о том, что создаю общественное движение под названием Putin Team. Быть частью такой команды – для меня гордость, это похоже на ощущение, когда ты надеваешь майку сборной России, зная, что за тебя болеет вся страна. #putinteam
A post shared by Alexander Ovechkin (@aleksandrovechkinofficial) on
As translated by The Washington Post (our Russians were busy), here is what Ovechkin wrote.
Personal achievements and medals – all of this is great, but in hockey, like with everything, to win it’s important to have a team. Only a team is capable of changing the course of a game, achieve the impossible. Lately, in the Western Press, I’m noticing a comparison to Putin’s team. And you know, I really liked that comparison. Personally, I’m ready to be a member of that team. I never hid my relationship with our president. I always openly supported him.
I’m certain that there are many of us that support Vladimir Putin. Let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia. Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of the Putin Team. Be a part of this team — to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian [national] team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.
Let’s get this out of the way: Ovechkin’s support of Putin is newsworthy. Ovechkin is the face of hockey in the capital of the United States of America, a country that has placed Russia under heavy sanctions after the Kremlin’s believed manipulation of the 2016 election and other violations of international law.
In 2000, I watched Russia’s new president on television from my eight-floor apartment, steps away from one of Moscow’s many ring roads. The last decade had been chaotic, as Boris Yeltsin presided over apartment building bombings on Chechen rebels and empty shelves. The Kremlin, once a sign of international superpower, was weak.
Enter Putin. Massive economic growth fueled by oil and other natural resources lifted many Russians out of hardship and restored national pride. In 2017, Putin’s personal power over the country is vast as he seeks to overturn the Western world order led by the United States and restore Russia to its former greatness.
To that end, Putin invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014 (something Ovechkin promoted in a campaign to “save children from fascism”) and annexed its Crimea region after the pro-Russian government was deposed.
Putin saved Syria’s Assad regime from near collapse a year later. Together, the countries commit war crimes in Syria’s civil war. The conflict has claimed nearly 500,000 lives and led to the largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II.
And, of course, Russia has long been accused of attacks on democratic elections in other countries.
At home, Putin enjoys the support from fourth-fifths of the population partly through his general control of the media, the jailing and killing of opponents and journalists, and courts that answer to him. He is an authoritarian.
There is, however, dissent. Protesters all over Russia chant “Russia without Putin” as they walk through the streets. That is why Ovechkin’s announcement was notable. He is a massive sports hero in his homeland with the power to mobilize Russians who favor Putin and counter those who do not.
The NHL’s most elite sniper has long been a supporter of Putin’s and has praised the leader on his social media accounts. The two have long traded phone calls. They’ve been seen hugging at the World Championships. This summer, the relationship turned up another notch. Putin personally congratulated Alex and Nastya on their wedding and bought the couple a tea set as a gift. Ovechkin and Putin sat beside each other during a martial arts tournament. Ovechkin went to a Putin town hall event.
This website has long chronicled Ovechkin’s personal life. Ovechkin is increasingly associating himself with a leader hostile to the United States, stepping into a geopolitical contest between the country of his birth and the country of his employment. It is a choice for individual Caps fans whether that matters to them.
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