Antagonism between Russia and Ukraine has been drastically worsening since early 2014 when the Russian military crossed into Ukrainian territory after mass protests in Ukraine forced out a Russia-friendly president and replaced him with a pro-Western government. Russia swiftly declared this change in Ukraine’s government an illegal coup and, immediately, sent armed forces to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. With Russian troops in control of the peninsula, the Crimean parliament voted to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. At the same time, Russia also fomented a separatist rebellion that took control of part of the eastern region of Ukraine, particularly the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ultimately, since the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 through today, continued violence in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people, tens of thousands have been wounded, and more than a million displaced. Taken together, the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed separatist movement violence in the east strengthened Ukraine’s interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). However, Ukraine has still yet to become a member of either alliance. Regardless, Russian president Vladimir Putin calls the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO a major threat to his country.
Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that it might join NATO or the EU caused Russia to grow unnerved until it mounted in April 2021, when Russia sent about 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s borders. Then in December 2021, Russia presented NATO and the United States with a set of security demands. Among them was a guarantee that NATO permanently bars Ukraine from membership and withdraw forces stationed in the Eastern European countries that joined the alliance after 1997. In January 2022, representatives from the U.S. and NATO responded to Putin, rejecting his far-reaching demands, but showing a willingness to negotiate over smaller issues like arms control. However, Russia was unsatisfied.
In mid-February, the fighting escalated between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in the two eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, as Russia continued to amass a military presence near the Ukrainian border. Then, on February 21, Putin formally signed decrees recognizing the independence of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. On the same day, Putin ordered Russia’s military to deploy troops to these two pro-Russian breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine under the guise of a peacekeeping mission. Two days later, on February 23, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law and a 30-day state of emergency.
On February 24, Russian military forces launched a devastating all-out assault on Ukrainian territory. Russian missiles rained down upon Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, as an estimated 150,000 to 190,000 Russian troops began pouring into the countryside. This invasion marked the largest military operation in Europe since the end of World War II in 1945, and it is the most high-stakes situation in Ukraine’s 31-year history since breaking from the Soviet Union in 1991.
The invasion threatens to destabilize the security structure of Europe that has helped keep the peace on the continent since WWII. Putin appears intent on toppling Ukraine’s democratically elected government, subsuming the country into Russia, and winding back the clock more than 30 years to establish a broad, reunified Russian-dominated security zone resembling the power of the Soviet Union.
In response, the United States has already condemned Russia’s aggression and begun issuing a broad set of economic sanctions against Russia aimed at cutting off Russia’s largest banks and some oligarchs from much of the global financial system and preventing the country from importing technology critical to its defense, aerospace and maritime industries. Other governments, international organizations, and businesses have followed and have imposed sanctions and measures against Russia across all sectors. This includes the sports world, which is standing fully united and in full solidarity with all the people affected in Ukraine.
More and more sports are following the appeal of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and banning Russian athletes from competing as sanctions mount. On February 28, the IOC formally requested all international sports federations to keep Russian athletes out of events they organize.
In regards to ice hockey, Putin’s favorite team sport, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) announced an indefinite ban on Russian teams, which means that the Russian men’s team is out of the world championships scheduled for May. The IIHF also said it would relocate this year’s junior world championship out of Russia. Russia has also been barred from participating in this year’s Euro Hockey Tour. Additionally, the NHL has suspended all business dealings with Russian partners and has halted its online presence in the Russian language.
In regards to soccer, FIFA and its European counterpart, UEFA, have suspended Russian national teams and clubs from all competitions until further notice. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, has ejected Russia’s national men’s team from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. UEFA has decided to move this year’s Champions League final from St. Petersburg, Russia to Paris, France. UEFA then went a step further and announced that it had canceled a sponsorship deal worth $50 million a year with the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
In regards to basketball, Russian teams and officials have been suspended from all competitions by the International Basketball Federation, which will disqualify the Russian women’s team from the World Cup scheduled for September. Additionally, the EuroLeague suspended Russian clubs CSKA Moscow, UNICS Kazan, and Zenit St. Petersburg, with Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar being suspended from the EuroCup.
In regards to tennis, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) canceled all of its events in Russia and barred Russia from team competitions until further notice. However, Russian tennis players, including top-ranked Daniil Medvedev, will be allowed to play on the ATP and WTA tours, but without national flags.
In regards to auto racing, Formula One canceled the Russian Grand Prix scheduled for this September in Sochi, Russia. However, auto racing’s international body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), will allow Russian drivers to compete, but under a neutral flag.
Russia has also been barred from competing in international ice skating, skiing, track, rowing, badminton, canoeing, and triathlon. Meanwhile, the Winter Paralympics, the International Cycling Union, and FINA, swimming’s governing body, will allow Russian athletes to compete as neutrals with no national flag, anthem, or symbols. Furthermore, both the International Gymnastics Federation and International Volleyball Federation have canceled all of their events in Russia.
At this moment, it is unclear whether the sanctions to bar Russian athletes will face court challenges. In the past, Russia and its athletes have successfully fought exclusion from events, including the Olympic Games, by getting punishments watered down through appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
What is clear is that sport is not beyond politics. International sports federations must continue to step up and join the efforts to end this war and restore peace to ensure the integrity of global sports competitions and the safety of all the participants.