On Thursday, in the hours before his Washington Capitals took the ice against the New York Islanders, Alex Ovechkin announced his plan to start a social media movement in support of Russian president Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t really a bombshell, as Ovechkin has a healthy relationship with his nation’s president, and he’s always been a patriot. Ovechkin’s mother was a gold-medalist basketball player for the Russian Olympic team, and her son’s love of country has been obvious throughout his entire career.
“I’m certain that there are many of us that support Vladimir Putin,” Ovechkin wrote on Instagram as translated by The Washington Post. “Let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia. Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of 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 team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.”
There hasn’t been much of an outcry about this in America. Far more social media anger was spent on Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown raising a fist to protest racial inequality in America. Brown got death threats and ceased his statements. Fortunately there was no such vitriol for the Washington icon, and hopefully there won’t be. In America, athletes should be allowed to express their views peacefully without being threatened for it.
Ovechkin did get a couple of questions from reporters, though. He insisted this wasn’t about politics.
“I don’t try to be politics man or someone like that,” Ovechkin said. “I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there, and you know, if people from U.S. came to Russia, they care about what happening in U.S. So, I care about what happening in Russia because that’s my home and that’s where I’m from.”
Fair enough. But it’s also fair to take a closer look at the leader Ovechkin is supporting with his new movement.
Let’s go back to January, when then-nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, went before the Senate confirmation committee. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio asked Tillerson, “Do you believe Vladimir Putin is a war criminal?”
Tillerson replied that he didn’t have sufficient information to answer.
“Are you aware,” Rubio retorted, “that people who oppose Vladimir Putin wind up dead all over the world, poisoned, shot in the back of the head? And do you think that was coincidental or do you think that it is quite possible or likely, as I believe, that they were part of an effort to murder his political opponents?”
Tillerson said he wanted access to all information, including classified information.
“None of this is classified, Mr. Tillerson,” Rubio replied. “These people are dead.”
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey took a turn and asked Tillerson whether Russia and Syria’s “targeted bombing campaign on Aleppo, on hospitals for example” constituted a war crime.
Again, Tillerson said he needed more information.
It’s up for debate as to whether Putin is a war criminal. That is not a term to use lightly. However there are certainly experts who have more than a slight problem with Putin’s human rights record. Rutgers professor Alexander Motyl argued in Politico that “Putin has funded, promoted, supplied and aided and abetted the Russian and pro-Russian terrorists in eastern Ukraine. Thus far, that war has taken 10,000 lives. It was Putin’s proxies who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014, killing 298 innocent people aboard.” Less than a year ago, the U.N. passed a resolution calling for Russia to immediately end all abuses against Crimea residents including “arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, and to revoke all discriminatory legislation.”
Serious charges. But should all that really matter? During his interview with Bill O’Reilly prior to the Super Bowl last February, President Donald Trump was challenged on his stated respect for Putin, who the Fox News host called “a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers,” President Trump said. “You think we’re so innocent?”
There are indeed a lot of killers around the world. It’s just not every day that a beloved athlete starts a social movement to support someone with that reputation.
Scrutiny on Russia and Putin is unique from an American perspective. As most are aware, Russia is widely believed in the U.S. intelligence community to have meddled in the American election last year. Congress passed sanctions against Russia just recently. In fact, prosecutors are reportedly considering charging Russian government officials with hacking the Democratic National Committee’s computers and taking sensitive information. And President Trump is under investigation for possible collusion with Russia. (He calls it all a hoax.) A new Associated Press report found Russian hackers under the label Fancy Bear “tried to pry open at least 573 inboxes belonging to those in the top echelons of the country’s diplomatic and security services: then-Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-NATO Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, and one of his predecessors, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark.” The Kremlin denies any such interference, but one Russia expert cited by the AP says, “I have no doubts.”
Fancy Bear is also the group accused of hacking into World Anti-Doping Agency records last year, victimizing American Olympians including Simone Biles and Serena Williams. The Fancy Bear website proclaimed: “We will start with the U.S. team which has disgraced its name by tainted victories. We will also disclose exclusive information about other national Olympic teams later.”
Now, it’s possible that Vladimir Putin is blameless in all this. Perhaps his government didn’t meddle in U.S. elections, his nation’s geopolitical aggression is simply a means to liberate people who want to be Russian anyway, he didn’t collude with any political group in the U.S., he is responsible for zero human rights violations, and the journalists who have turned up dead were simply coincidental and unfortunate tragedies.
However, it is possible that Putin is enmeshed in all of it, and Alex Ovechkin has therefore created a political movement in support of a hostile dictator on American soil. That would appear rather troubling, yet there seems to be little in the way of concern, at least so far. Tennis legend Martina Navratilova tweeted, “Sorry Alex but if you support Putin, then you are not neutral.”
There would likely be more attention in Washington D.C. if Caps teammate Devante Smith-Pelly decided to raise a fist like J.T. Brown did. He is one of the few black players in the NHL. A few weeks ago, Smith-Pelly said he would consider some sort of protest. “You look at all the teams, it’s not people that look like me,” he told the Washington Post. “That’s just the way it is right now. That’s not to say that the people on the team and guys in this room don’t think that’s the right thing to do, but it’s tough when I can’t look over and the guy beside me knows exactly what’s going on and exactly how I feel. That makes what [Brown] did even more respectable. He’s all by himself.”
Ovechkin is not all by himself in his political commentary. He has the fervent support of his nation’s president. So that’s the best of both worlds: financial success in America and political support in Russia. Ovechkin can achieve his professional dreams and still speak his mind.
That’s a precious gift. Not everyone around the world is so blessed.