Like Heurtel, these athletes who “will be political instruments used by the Kremlin”

It is a career choice that is not without consequences. And who has every interest in being carefully thought out, by the player and his representatives. Some athletes have recently agreed to respond to Russian sirens by signing up with clubs from the homeland of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. The most mediatic of them? Thomas Heurtel, who signed with Zenit Saint-Petersburg after the silver medal brought back by the tricolor basketball players from Euro 2022, despite his initial commitments with the FFBB (French Basketball Federation) A decision that goes beyond the framework of sport , even if the protagonists most often explain that they remain focused on their careers. “It is very serious. We’re not just going to play sports in a club. We participate in the propaganda of the Russian government“, launches Lukas Aubin, doctor in geopolitics and author of “Geopolitics of Russia”.

If he has animated the discussions in recent days, Thomas Heurtel is not a unique case. The leader of the Blues followed the example of other international basketball players, such as Livio Jean-Charles at CSKA Moscow and Louis Labeyrie in Kazan. Or the footballer Wilson Isidor who decided to leave AS Monaco to go to Lokomotiv Moscow. Their case is of course different from those of the players who were in Russia for a long time. In the current context and while the Russian invasion continues in Ukraine, Thomas Heurtel and co have taken an option that is not insignificant.


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Russian power uses foreign sportsmen to signify intentions

For the sporty side already. They thus find themselves at the heart of debates with, in hollow, the question of their presence in the national team. Heurtel will for example be excluded from the French basketball team “for the next international events, including the 2024 Olympic Games” if he is “made to play” with Zenit, as the FFBB specified. But here again, it must be understood that the consequences of their career choice go beyond the simple framework of sport. Playing in Russia today n It’s not just about career, contract or performance.

It is notably blessed bread for the Russian power, which can use these arrivals for propagandistic purposes. “The Russian power uses foreign sportsmen to signify intentions. Bringing in high-level athletes who are part of foreign national teams like Heurtel shows that Russia is still attractive and that it is not so isolated as that. We can assume that during the matches where he will play, there may be symbols intended for the Russian public but also for the Western public. We can also imagine that he will be pampered by the club and will benefit from numerous privileges or interviews where he will be glorified on a national scale.“, estimates Lukas Aubin, specialist of Russia.

By succeeding in attracting champions from Western countries, the Russian clubs participate in a certain way in the strategy desired by the Kremlin, which seeks to exist while the country of Vladimir Putin has been isolated in recent months diplomatically but also sportingly. “It’s not a big move at the moment, there are only a few players who have signed in Russia. But we are more about symbols that allow the Russian power to show that its sports system continues to work.“, explains Lukas Aubin again. “The overall dynamic for Vladimir Putin, who is a sports enthusiast, is to make the Russian sports sphere work despite Western constraints. In this objective, the arrival of foreign players in the Russian championships takes on its full meaning..”

All French athletes must be aware of this risk

The subject is obviously very sensitive. And while the contracts offered by the Russian clubs are logically attractive, all the athletes who go to Russia do not necessarily have all these issues in hand when it comes time to commit. By signing at Zenit, was Heurtel, for example, fully aware that he was not going to just any club? “Zenit Saint-Petersburg is Gazprom’s club and therefore a state club – Gazprom being the economic arm of Vladimir Putin -. But any decision taken by Gazprom is not taken unilaterally. They are obviously taken with the approval of the Russian government and the Russian president“, explains Lukas Aubin, before expanding the question: “Today, the idea is to use French or foreign athletes as the positive symbol of a Russia that still functions. But there is a risk. And all French athletes must be aware of this risk. They are going to be political instruments used by the Kremlin. Without a doubt“.

And in addition to seeing their image diverted for purposes that may escape them, there is also a risk for them of finding themselves in a delicate situation. The author of “The Sportokratura under Vladimir Putin” and “Geopolitics of Russia” warns that this can quickly turn into a nightmare, as illustrated by the case of the American Brittney Griner, basketball star, sentenced in early August in Russia to nine years in prison for cannabis trafficking. “At present, when we see the state of the army on the ground and Russian diplomacy abroad, the geopolitical strategy of Vladimir Putin, we are in a logic of ‘victory or nothing’. Potentially if Vladimir Putin were to use France’s top athletes as hostages to achieve victory, he could do so. It’s a possibility. But for the moment, the logic is reversed.”


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