MOSCOW (Reuters) - Legendary U.S. boxer Roy Jones Jr. has filed for Russian citizenship, state TV reported on Thursday, a day after the multiple champion met President Vladimir Putin and said he wanted to build bridges between Russia and the United States.
Putin, at odds with the West over the Ukraine crisis, responded positively. “If you plan to commit a large part of your live to activity in Russia, then we will naturally be pleased and satisfy your request to get a Russian passport, Russian citizenship,” he told Jones in footage shown online.
Putin received the American boxer in Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine last year in a move that drove relations between Moscow and the West, including Washington, to a post-Cold War low.
Determined to prove wrong those saying Russia has faced international isolation over its role in the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has relentlessly publicized cases of popular Westerners praising Russia and sometimes even seeking citizenship.
“I want to ask you about maybe having a passport to go back and forth so that I can do business here because all the people here seem to love Roy Jones Jr., and I love when people love me,” the former boxer told Putin on Wednesday evening.
“Sportswise, it would also help build a bridge between the two countries. Which is what I want to do,” Jones, looking relaxed in a grey shirt, was shown saying in footage from the meeting posted on the Kremlin website.
Putin welcomed the U.S. boxer by saying “nice to meet you” in English and Jones complimented him on his knowledge of the language. The two went on to discuss sports. Putin is famously a sports buff and an avid judoist himself.
The next day Russian state TV broadcaster Rossiya 24 showed Jones filling in an application for Russian citizenship.
Russia dealt the United States a political poke in the eye in 2013 by granting asylum to Edward Snowden, a former U.S. spy agency contractor who had leaked details of mass state surveillance and is wanted by Washington.
Also in 2013, French actor Gerard Depardieu made headlines when Putin granted him Russian citizenship. Ukraine banned Depardieu from the country for five years for his stance on Crimea and his defense of Russia’s foreign policy.
American actors Steven Seagal and Mickey Rourke are also among Western celebrities who have socialized with Putin and praised him, as well as Russia, despite the deep chill in diplomatic relations between Moscow and the West.
The United States, along with the European Union, slapped sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea. It has since stepped them up, blaming Moscow for driving a pro-Russian separatist rebellion that erupted in east Ukraine in April 2014, killing more than 6,500 people to date. Moscow denies the charges.
The conflict in Syria, human rights, defense and security, as well as trade issues are among other disputes between Moscow and Washington.
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Mark Heinrich