As Putin becomes increasingly dangerous, so does Ovechkin’s support

The Washington Capitals NHL team has recently come under fire for banning Ukraine flags from games at their arena. The move is blatant in its intention to insulate star forward Alexander Ovechkin, who is facing renewed pressure to denounce his longstanding support for Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia engages in a brutal military invasion of its sovereign neighbour.

Many in the hockey community have been quick to brush aside these calls for accountability from the Capitals’ captain. Ovechkin, after all, has claimed on many occasions to be just an athlete, not political. Others have wondered whether fear of reprisal against himself or his family is at the origin of Ovechkin’s enthusiasm for the Russian leader.  

However, it must be noted that Ovechkin’s backing of his president has endured and grown as Putin’s actions in Russia and abroad have escalated. As he continues to put his weight behind a man waging destructive warfare, the degree to which he is complicit in defending and even promoting Putin’s agenda must be examined.

REAL RISKS FACING RUSSIAN-BORN PLAYERS

Agent Dan Milstein, Founder and CEO of Gold Star Financial Group, and a representative of several Russian-born players in the NHL, spoke to ESPN about his clients receiving “disturbing levels” of harassment, including death threats, both on social media and in person.

Milstein, an American citizen born in Kyiv, Ukraine, told ESPN that while some of his Russian clients can speak freely and safely in North America, “their family could be scrutinized back home and anything can happen.”

Despite the known risks associated with speaking out against Putin, several Russian athletes across many sports have taken public stances against the increasing Russian aggression in Ukraine. In February, Calgary Flames defenceman Nikita Zadorov, a Milstein client, posted a “No War” message to his Instagram page.

Given the Putin regime’s history of publicly attacking and even imprisoning critics and political opponents, it is reasonable for any Russian athlete or public figure to fear repercussions to themselves or their family for taking a stance against Putin’s actions. Many point to the example of New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin, who in February 2021 took a leave of absence from the team to deal with a “fabricated story” about him assaulting an 18-year-old woman, which emerged after Panarin made an Instagram post supporting Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny after Navalny was imprisoned.

In a statement following Panarin’s “Freedom for Navalny” message on his now-private Instagram page, the Rangers issued a statement denying the allegations and supporting Panarin. “This is clearly an intimidation tactic,” the statement read, “being used against him for being outspoken on recent political events.” Panarin has been a long-time critic of Putin, and has criticized fellow NHLers Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Semyon Varlamov for singing Putin’s praises.

Of all the Russian athletes with success in North America, perhaps none has been more vocal and consistent in his backing of Putin than Ovechkin, who in turn is likely the least at risk of repercussions should he speak out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

When made available by the Capitals in February, Ovechkin made several moderate remarks against war in general, but his comments boiled down to a clear choice to continue supporting Putin.

“It doesn’t matter who is in a war,” Ovechkin told reporters. “Russia, Ukraine, other countries, we live in a world… we have to live in peace.”

“I hope, soon it’s going to be over,” he added, a sentiment repeated several times during the media availability.

When asked if he supports Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Ovechkin replied, “I’m Russian, right?… Something I can’t control. It’s not in my hands.”

As to his feelings on Putin’s actions specifically, Ovechkin stated, “Well, he is my president.”

“I am not in politics. I am an athlete,” he concluded.

OVECHKIN AND PUTIN: A STAR AND HIS PRESIDENT

Ovechkin has never been shy about his affinity for Putin in the past, and their close relationship has been well documented. Notably, a message from Putin was read at Ovechkin’s 2016 wedding, accompanying a gift of an ornamental tea set. The two are known to have each other’s phone numbers and speak about hockey on a somewhat regular basis. Ovechkin has attended political events in support of Putin and taken meetings at the Kremlin.

Despite claiming to be apolitical, advocacy for Vladimir Putin has been a consistent and integral part of Ovechkin’s personal brand throughout his professional hockey career, clearly demonstrated by the content of Ovechkin’s Instagram page.

In addition to having a profile picture of himself with the Russian President, Ovechkin has made at least 11 Instagram posts of or about Putin.

The first known* example is an apparently-screen grabbed image Ovechkin shared on March 18, 2014, which appears to originally taken during a speech Putin gave after signing a treaty annexing Crimea for Russia. In the speech, Putin referred to the Ukraine government as illegitimate, driven by radical “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites.”

Ovechkin has used his Instagram to wish Putin a Happy Birthday on at least four occasions, in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018.

Twice, Ovechkin amplified Putin’s New Year’s Eve messages on his Instagram, once with the athlete himself featured prominently and enthusiastically in a post.

In August 2014, Ovechkin posted an image of himself holding a page reading “# Save Children From Fascism” This can be seen as a direct endorsement of the Putin regime’s false position that Russian-armed and funded rebels were liberating Ukrainians from a “fascist” and “Nazi” government.

Ovechkin has also on at least two occasions shared content from the official Kremlin Instagram page. In one instance, he shared a Kremlin-posted video of himself, wearing a “Russian Army” T-Shirt with Putin pictured. Another piece of Kremlin content shared by Ovechkin in February 2015 included a caption and hashtag that roughly translate to “Homeland Waits” and “Country Victory.” At this time, Russia was engaged in direct military intervention, and arming anti-government rebels, in Debal’tseve, Ukraine.

Ovechkin’s championing of Putin reached a peak in November 2017 when he announced via Instagram the launch of “Putin Team,” an informal “social movement” which “unites people who are proud of their country and want to make Russia stronger.”

BEHIND PUTIN TEAM

Translated by the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, Ovechkin’s announcement of Putin Team stated:

“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.”

“I just support my country,” Ovechkin said after a Capitals game following the creation of Putin Team. “Like every human from different countries, they support their president.”

Ovechkin dubiously maintains that the site was his idea and claims to have initiated the Putin Team movement and its infrastructure on his own. Officially, spokespeople from the Kremlin have indicated that Putin had no advanced notice of the initiative, a claim disputed in Russian media. Other media reports have linked its creation to IMA-Consulting, a Kremlin-backed public relations firm that was paid for work related to Russia’s 2018 presidential election.

Though representatives for IMA-Consulting have denied involvement with the Putin Team movement, a quick examination of the site reveals what political observers would refer to as an astroturfing initiative, a professional public relations campaign designed to appear as though it originated with grassroots public support. While the breadth and depth of content appears limited, many of its features seem designed to collect or mine contact information of potential supporters. Similar voter contact microsites are a tool commonly employed in modern political organizing.

The website’s professionally designed homepage features an image carousel that shows Ovechkin inviting viewers to join Putin Team, as well as a message of support for Russia’s Olympic athletes. The homepage invites users to connect on social media and post about Putin, read news about Putin Team activities, take tests – such as a Putin Birthday quiz and a Valentine’s Day quiz – create and attend events, or learn more about the people involved in Putin Team.

The site’s most recent news feature, published on July 17, 2021, provides limited details on a law Putin signed enabling Russian citizens to pursue higher education in creative specialties free of charge. Another article outlines a “Stars in Samara” basketball event organized “under the auspices of the Putin Team,” picturing a cohesive visual brand for Putin Team.

A prominent description of Putin Team roughly translates to: “These are the people of Russia who respect their country. These are the people who support Putin. These are the people of Russia, who are respected in the country and the world. Putin’s team is people for whom actions are more important than words.”

A list of “Putin Team Values” include “country we are proud of,” “people we trust,” (pictured alongside an image of Putin speaking to supporters) and “things that matter.”

The “Command” page lists numerous Russian athletes, businesspeople, artists and other cultural figures of varying prominence who help comprise Putin Team. Of the 89 individuals listed, three are politicians currently serving Russia’s ruling United Russia party, 28 are athletes (nearly half of whom are martial artists or boxers), 15 are film, television and other media figures, eight are musicians, and five are visual artists. Two players in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League are included, but none of Ovechkin’s Russian-born NHL colleagues who have openly backed Putin in the past are on the list.

Although it is not clear how actively the site is maintained – there are no activities currently posted to the map of events – it is evident that its operations have, at least at some point, been funded and staffed. That the Putin Team movement is much bigger than the passion project of a professional hockey player should be obvious to even the most casual observer.

OVECHKIN FAMILY VALUES

As many hockey fans have expressed disappointment about Ovechkin’s outward support for Putin, others have given the star athlete more than his fair share of the benefit of the doubt. “What’s he supposed to do, his family is over there,” is a common refrain on social media when Ovechkin’s sympathies for Putin are criticized.

However, as one of Russia’s most famous and successful athletes in the world, as someone with close ties to Putin, and as a member of a prominent athletic family with longstanding ties to power in Moscow, it’s hard to see Ovechkin’s level of risk as commensurate with other Russian public figures who have been punished for speaking out. Though nobody should be considered untouchable in Putin’s regime, Ovechkin’s unique position should nullify any argument that he is being coerced into backing Putin, or that he has no choice but to do so.

Ovechkin is the son of Mikhail Ovechkin, a Russian footballer of whom little is written in English, and Tatyana Ovechkina, of whom a great deal has been written. Ovechkina, a professional basketball player, was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, World Champion, six-time European Champion, and is considered one of the all-time best female point guards. She played for the Dynamo Moscow women’s team for 16 years before becoming its coach, and currently heads the Russia women’s national basketball program.

While Ovechkin has spoken of a modest childhood, attending military school and living in a “crumbing neighbourhood” on the outskirts of Moscow, his mother’s comments to media outline ongoing connections to the corridors of power. In 2010, Ovechkina spoke to Washington Capitals fan blog Russian Machine Never Breaks about how former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov “helped to raise” her son Alexander.

Luzhkov, a major financial supporter of Ovechkina’s Dynamo Moscow basketball club, was a significant figure in modern Russian politics. He served as mayor from 1992 until 2010, after holding the position of Chairman of the Moscow city government (head civil servant) — a position to which he was appointed by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Following his ouster from the mayorship after refusing Dmitry Medvedev’s intention to run for a second presidential term, Luzhkov became aligned with then-newly appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The former mayor was the vice-chairman and one of the founders of the ruling United Russia party, of which Putin is the informal but de facto head.

In 1991, Luzhkov married his second wife, Yelena Baturina, Russia’s first (and only until she was overtaken in 2020) female billionaire, who was one of several Russian oligarchs named in U.S. President Donald Trump’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.

Luzhkov received international criticism for his hard stance against homosexuality and issuing of bans on Pride Parades in Moscow, which he referred to as “satanic.” In 2010 he raised controversy with a plan to honour Soviet leader Joseph Stalin with ten posters in Moscow.

Luzhkov was the first person Tatyana Ovechkina called when her son was selected first overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Ovechkina is not the only member of the Ovechkin family with connections to fame and power. Alexander Ovechkin’s wife – model and actress Anastasia Shubskaya – is the daughter of well-known Russian actress and director Vera Glagoleva, and Kirill Shubsky, a businessman – known as “Russian Onassis” – who served as an advisor to Putin for the Sochi Olympics.

While his extended family network may not be comprised of powerful oligarchs and politicos, their varied and longstanding connections to fame, money and power in Russia cannot be ignored when considering the role Alexander Ovechkin plays in supporting Putin and his agenda.

OVECHKIN’S ACTIONS CANNOT BE VIEWED AS APOLITICAL

Alexander Ovechkin wants fans to believe he is just an athlete. However, his actions, and inactions, are deeply political and deserve to be scrutinized as such. Ovechkin has used his public profile to amplify Putin’s messages, emphatically supported “his president” at every available opportunity, and refused every chance to distance himself from the despot and his agenda.

It appears the more aggressive Putin has acted to impose his agenda, the more supportive Ovechkin has become. It’s becoming harder to question whether Ovechkin is simply a proud patriot, coerced or blinded by love of country, and easier to ask whether he is an active and willing purveyor of Russian propaganda – an ideological weapon of the state.

FOOTNOTES

*This writer is not fluent in Russian. Examinations of Ovechkin’s comments and social media content are limited to what can be researched, observed, and deduced in English, or credibly translated. Any relevant content that may have been missed is welcome for future examination.