The geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe escalated dramatically on Monday, as the United States closed its embassy in Ukraine and Russia continued to move military assets close to the Ukrainian border, including in the Black Sea, with many fearing that a Russian invasion could come as early as this week.
Estimates by the United States say that Russia has amassed more than 130,000 troops near Ukraine’s border in recent weeks, and the country has been conducting joint military exercises with Belarus
Russia said on Tuesday that they have withdrawn some troops from the border, though Ukrainian officials have doubted those claims; so far, several attempted diplomatic interventions by other countries, including France and the United States, have come up short.
Russia says that their primary concern is NATO encroaching closer to their territory in Eastern Europe, make demands that the defense organization will not admit Ukraine as a member.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that his country still believes there is room for a diplomatic solution, even as Russia ramps up its brinksmanship ahead of such a solution.
A potential landwar in Ukraine would undoubtedly result in wide-scale western sanctions on Russia. It would also put to test the global sporting community’s resolve to an even greater degree than the ongoing Winter Olympics have in China.
This is especially true in swimming, where Russia and Ukraine are relevant on two athletic fronts.
Russian Hosting of Major Meets
While there have been wars and deadly military skirmishes in the last 50 years, none have really been at the potential scale of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia has become a primary host of major global sporting events, especially true in aquatics.
In 2022 alone, Russia is hosting the FINA World Junior Championships in August and the World Short Course Championships in December, both in Kazan.
They are also scheduled to host legs of the Artistic Swimming World Series and FINA Diving World Series from April 8-10.
This could become a problem for a number of reasons, not the least of which could be the reasonable hesitancy of Ukrainian athletes to travel to Russia while the two countries are involved in a large-scale war – even if they were able to get visas.
That could impact swimmers like Mykhailo Romanchuk of Ukraine, who won bronze in the 800 free and silver in the 1500 free at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Ukraine is also home to one of the best artistic swimming programs in the world (they won bronze in both Olympic events in Tokyo) and have a number of elite divers as well.
A Russian invasion of Ukraine would undoubtedly be greeted with big economic sanctions from Europe and the United States that would damage the Russian economy. Experts have said that Russia has done work to make their economy more resilient to western sanctions since their invasion of Crimea in 2014, but that these sanctions could still do major damage to the Russian economy.
That could mean a lot of things for the country’s hosting – both a change in the financial calculus for hosting the meets, as well as potential counter-sanctions that could make athlete travel to-and-from Russia if not more difficult, at least less comfortable for athletes.
International sports bodies have generally made efforts to stay neutral in these sorts of geopolitical crises, especially with the amount of money that flows to their coffers from countries like Russia. They have had to draw the line, though, where athletes were unable to compete fairly and safely. We saw this when Malaysia was removed as the host of the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships over the country’s ongoing refusal to grant visas to Israeli athletes.
The other, more novel, challenge presented comes in funding for the International Swimming League, which is scheduled to host its fourth season in 2022. To date, the league’s $20+ million annual budget has been almost entirely funded by Soviet-born Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin.
Grigorishin began to grow his wealth in the early 1990s after the collapse of the soviet union in metals trading. IN the late 1990s, when there was a massive privatization of industry in Ukraine, he invested in a number of businesses that eventually led to the formation of the Energy Standard Group – the business that has a name synonymous with his ISL club.
According to the Kyiv Post, Grigorishin was accused of evading taxes in Russia in 2015, accusations that Grigorishin has denied.
That caused him to move back to Ukraine and obtain Ukrainian citizenship.
Grigorishin’s wealth is largely tied to the Ukrainian economy, and in some regards to the relationship between Russia and Ukraine: in 2014, he helped negotiate a deal to import coal and electricity from Russia to Ukraine.
Grigorishin has been locked in a number of battles between Russia and Ukraine, including being accused of paying taxes to a separatist group in Luhansk, most of which has been met with denials from Grigorishin.
In summation, it’s a very complicated financial situation, but one that could be negatively damaged by a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the impacts on both countries’ economies.
An ISL spokesperson says that they are “aware of the concerns of the community and the uncertainty that surrounds the swimming calendar moving forward.
“Even though we are confident that future seasons will not be affected by any geopolitical situations, we are also working on a variety of things and will release news when we are ready to.”