In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Western governments have imposed significant sanctions on Moscow. Private actors have joined in; as Eugene Kontorovich notes, the Metropolitan Opera, Wimbledon, and numerous film festivals have banned Russian artists or athletes. Kontorovich examines the recent history of Western sanctions and their effectiveness, as well as what, if any, broader cultural or moral purposes they serve. While noting that sanctions against Russia have “whet the appetite of opponents of Israel,” he also distinguishes between the aims of those pushing to sanction Russia and the champions of BDS.
To start, the Western sanctions regime against Russia does not, in fact, demonstrate some moral or legal measure in international affairs. Russian military operations in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria between 2000 and 2015, for example, elicited no such response. When Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia in 2008 and conquered a fifth of the country, the international community barely shrugged; indeed, some criticized Tbilisi for its stubborn insistence on restoring the country’s pre-invasion borders. Just a few years later, when Russia hosted the Winter Olympics, it housed workers in Olympic village barracks built in the newly occupied territory; there were no cries of “illegal settlement construction.”
Economic sanctions are merely a tool, like bullets—a continuation of politics by other means, always linked to the strategic goals of the countries imposing them. Sanctions themselves are morally neutral—it all depends on the circumstances in which they are imposed. It is not “hypocritical” or “inconsistent” for the United States to support sanctions on Russia while opposing them against Israel, any more than it is to support sanctions against Venezuela while opposing them against Mexico.