By Mike Collett
RIO DE JANEIRO, July 12 (Reuters) - The political crisis in the Ukraine will have no impact on Russia's preparations for the 2018 World Cup finals according to Vitaly Mutko, Russia's sports minister who is also a member of FIFA's executive committee.
Mutko was speaking in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro on the day that Ukrainian war planes bombarded separatists along a broad front, inflicting huge losses according to official sources in the Ukraine capital Kiev.
In exchanges marking a sharp escalation in the three-month conflict, jets struck at the "epicentre" of the battle against rebels near the border with Russia, a military spokesman said.
Mutko, addressing journalists at the "Russia House" at Rio's Museum of Modern Art, said that while Russia faced challenges in getting ready for the 2018 finals over the next four years, the situation in Ukraine was not one of them.
"I can't see any major issues," he said.
"It's a different subject and one that will not interfere in the preparations for the World Cup at all."
He also said there was "absolutely no tension" between Russian president Vladimir Putin and soccer's world governing body FIFA about the 2018 finals.
Putin is due to arrive in Rio on Sunday where he will watch the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina and also have talks with Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
"His visit will send a message in reassuring the football family that the Russian government fulfils its obligations," said Mutko.
"He would like to show what we have done so far and express our immense gratitude to the organisers of the current World Cup. We know how difficult it is to organise such events and that you have to suffer criticism.
"There will be a formal ceremony during which the President of Brazil and the president of FIFA will give a ball or some other symbol of the World Cup so we will feel fully fledged hosts of the next finals," he added.
"Then everybody will turn towards Russia!"
Among the challenges facing Russia is ensuring there will be enough accommodation in some of the 11 cities hosting matches and seeing an improvement in the Russia team, which is coached by experienced Italian Fabio Capello, ahead of the finals.
Russia went out of the World Cup in the group phase in Brazil and Mutko said he would like to see an improvement in the standard of the domestic league.
"Perhaps we don't have the right methods especially with youth football and I think our colleagues in England are thinking along the same lines," he said.
He also said he thought Russia were disappointing in Brazil.
"I think the team performed below its potential even considering all the circumstances. The players should have played better here and should have at least been able to progress to the knockout stage," he said.
One challenge most outsiders believe Russia should tackle is the threat of racism from Russian fans at the World Cup.
Last week, Mutko's FIFA colleague Jeffrey Webb, the head of the governing body's anti-discrimination task force, said Russia faced a "special challenge" ahead of the World Cup and might need its own Task Force to deal with the problem.
Mutko, however, said the country no longer had a problem and had dealt with the issue.
"In terms of problems with violence and racism Russia has no monopoly on these negative events.
"We are quite an open country, our football has opened up - we have a lot of African and Latin American players so we don't have such issues any more.
"Russia has no bigger issues than other countries, maybe even smaller - we have done much to stop it."
The first significant step on the road to the 2018 finals comes next July when the draw for the qualifying competition takes place in St Petersburg, which will host matches throughout the tournament including one semi-final.
"You are all welcome," he said, "you will see what an open country we are." (Reporting by Mike Collett; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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