Alex Ovechkin’s Instagram profile features a photo of the Washington Capitals star grinning and flashing a peace sign as he stands next to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
While Ovechkin has been under public pressure for the past two weeks to replace that photo, taken in the Kremlin after Russia won the 2014 world championships, doing so may put the lives of Ovechkin’s family in danger, The New York Times reported, citing unnamed sources.
ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan, also citing unnamed sources, has reported the Capitals asked Ovechkin to either change his Instagram profile photo or deactivate his account, but Ovechkin declined, citing concern for his family’s safety.
Since its invasion of Ukraine, Russia's government has introduced new laws that allow for prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who even describe the conflict in Ukraine as a war. Putin on Wednesday referred to pro-Western Russians as "scum and traitors."
Andrei Soldatov doesn't believe, however, that Ovechkin or his family would be at risk if he changes his social media profile photo.
Soldatov, an expert on Russia's surveillance culture and the co-author of The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries, argues the potential risk to Ovechkin is overblown.
“I'm a bit tired of the argument that it's too dangerous,” Soldatov wrote in an email to TSN. “He is a celebrity, and for Christ's sake, Russia is not (at least yet) Stalin's Soviet Union. We have thousands of people going to the streets to protest almost every day. My friends and colleagues are raising their voice against the war, and they are not afraid, though it's much more dangerous for them.”
Nikolai Petrov, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a research institute on foreign affairs in London, and an expert on Kremlin decision making, agreed that Ovechkin and his family would be unlikely to face repercussions.
"I don't think so if Ovechkin [does] not blame Putin for the war," Petrov said.
Ovechkin is among Russia’s best-known athletes. On Instagram, where he has posted numerous messages of support for Putin over the years, he has 1.6 million followers.
Soldatov, who is based in Moscow, said Ovechkin’s celebrity status would help to protect him.
“I think the worst he can get is that he could lose some contracts in Russia – if he had any,” Soldatov said. “We have several public figures speaking against the war, and at least now I don’t see massive hatred campaigns against them launched by Russian media. Ovechkin risks losing his base of support in Russia, but that’s about it.”
A Washington Capitals spokesman said neither the team nor Ovechkin were available for comment.
Predicting how Putin might react to public criticism, or even to a refreshed social media page, from Ovechkin is a mug’s game.
Military and political analysts have struggled for years to decipher Putin’s speeches and predict his next moves. However, experts who have studied both the country’s long-time president and Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, are divided over the potential for danger to Ovechkin and his family.
Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group in Moscow co-founded by the Russian Foreign Ministry that has advised the Kremlin on domestic and foreign affairs issues, said that no one can say with certainty what might happen to Ovechkin if he changes his Instagram photo or takes a stand against the war in Ukraine.
“We have entered uncharted waters and it is practically impossible to assess personal risks associated with taking a clear political position,” Kortunov wrote in an email to TSN. “Alex Ovechkin is a celebrity and his page might be closely monitored. The implications of a potential anti-Putin statement by Alex are hard to predict.”
Speaking out might also create problems for Ovechkin’s father-in-law, Kirill Shubsky, who helps to run the Russian company Khimkompozit, which makes advanced materials for boat building, Kortunov said. Khimkompozit, which in 2014 was sanctioned by the European Union, is a subsidiary of Rostec, a Russian state-owned defence industry company.
“I can also imagine that Ovechkin does not want to create problems for his father-in-law by openly criticizing Putin,” Kortunov said. ”In this case, his family ties are not an asset, but a liability.”
The New York Times reported that Ovechkin's wife and children are currently in Russia.
Ovechkin and Putin have enjoyed close ties for nearly a decade. One of Ovechkin’s first public statements of support for the Russian president came in 2014 after Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
Ovechkin is featured on his Instagram account holding a sign that reads #SaveChildrenFromFascism, a hashtag used by pro-Russian groups in Ukraine to rally support for Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Ovechkin wrote on the post: “Our grandfathers and grandmothers saw the horrors of fascism! We will not allow it in our generation!!”
In 2016, Ovechkin received a wedding gift from Putin and a telegram from the Russian president was read aloud at the reception, USA Today reported. In 2017, Ovechkin campaigned for Putin, starting what Ovechkin called a social movement known as “Putin Team.”
“Be a part of this team,” Ovechkin wrote in an Instagram post at the time. “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.”
In a press conference on Feb. 25, a day after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Ovechkin was asked whether he still supported Putin.
“Like, I’m Russian, right?” Ovechkin said. “You know, it’s not in my hands… Please, no more war. It doesn’t matter who is in the war, Russia, Ukraine, different countries... We have to live in peace and a great world.”
Asked about his support of Putin, Ovechkin responded, "He's my president, but I'm not in politics. I'm an athlete."
To this point, Ovechkin is one of two Russian NHL players to publicly comment on the war.
Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov, whose family is in Russia, has posted a Ukrainian flag emoji with the words “No war” and “STOP IT!!!” on Instagram.
Zadorov isn’t the only Russian to speak out, even as Russian police have arrested thousands who have taken part in protests against the war.
“There are quite a few high-profile Russian celebrities and sports figures, TV stars and musicians, who have spoken out,” said Brian Taylor, a professor at Syracuse University and author of The Code of Putinism. I don’t see how the regime would find it useful to go after these people or their families.”
Ivan Urgant, Russia’s most popular late-night talk show host, on Feb. 24 posted a pitch-black square to his Instagram account, followed by more than 10 million people, alongside the caption “Fear and pain. No to war” in Russian.
Urgant is now in Israel with his family where he posted a photo of himself on Mar. 11 with the caption: “Don’t panic. They let me go on vacation, but I’ll be back soon.”
Russian tennis player Andrey Rublev, whose family is in Russia, scribbled “No war please” on the lens of a television camera following a Feb. 26 match.
Some high-profile Russian athletes may be forced to condemn Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine if they want to continue competing.
The London Times reported that U.K. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston on Tuesday told a hearing that the British government will only allow individual athletes from Russia or Belarus to compete in events in the U.K. if they receive assurances that the individual athletes are not linked to the Russian or Belarusian states or their leaders.
“We need assurances that they [competitors] are not supporters of Vladimir Putin,” Huddleston told the hearing. “We are considering what requirements we may need [to put in place] to try and get assurances along those lines.”
Daniil Medvedev, the world’s No. 1 men’s tennis player, may be banned from Wimbledon unless he provides a public assurance that he does not support Putin, The Times reported. Medvedev has said publicly that he wants to “see peace” in Ukraine, although he has not directly criticized Putin or Russia’s invasion.
Sergey Sanovich, a postdoctoral scholar at Princeton University who is tracking the Kremlin crackdown on free speech, said he believes potential risks to Ovechkin are exaggerated.
“A friend of mine, a pregnant lady, last week posted on Facebook her opposition to the war in Ukraine and got a visit from the police and was fined,” Sanovich said in an interview with TSN.
“We think that Ovechkin is going to be in danger for changing a picture? I really doubt that… People like [Ovechkin] never take responsibility. The idea that Ovechkin is not political and that he says he’s just an athlete is so hypocritical that it’s laughable.”