The world’s economies have never been more integrated or interdependent. This is most immediately evident in the fact that a war halfway around the world sends gasoline prices skyrocketing in Metro Vancouver.
But that interdependence has also permitted the most dramatic, swift and merciless sanctions ever seen – as a response to that very war. Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a jaw-dropping catalogue of economic penalties was slammed against the Russian regime. Not only that, but the sanctions have taken aim at individual millionaires and billionaires who exist in a symbiotic, mafia-like relationship with the Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin. Every day, the news is filled with one company after another cutting ties with Russian businesses, stopping trade with Russian producers and withdrawing their products and services from Russian consumers.
Cultural boycotts have also been swift. The Vancouver Recital Society canceled a scheduled event with the Russian piano wunderkind Alexander Malofeev and scores or hundreds of similar cancellations have taken place in the classical music arena and other cultural sectors. International sporting competitions have barred Russian participation.
The combined effects of these thousands of individual actions are intended to put pressure on Russian citizens who will then, the plan goes, turn on their leader who will then, perhaps, alter his murderous invasion and withdraw or, better still, be ousted in favour of a return to the nascent democracy Russia was nurturing before Putin put his boot heel on its neck.
If these sanctions work, it could be a turning point in human history – nonviolent economic retribution outmanoeuvring brute force. (In addition to economic sanctions, Western countries have also supplied Ukraine with military equipment and other supports, while stopping short of meeting the entreaties of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that the West get more directly involved, including by implementing a no-fly zone over his country, which would equate to a direct military conflict between Russia and the West.)
Events are unfolding by the minute, with more than two million refugees flooding neighbouring countries in the course of just 10 days and horrific images of destruction and death flowing out to the world. Amid all this, a few observations stand out.
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow after Zelensky implored him to act as an intermediary. Israel has fraught, complex and deep historical and contemporary connections with both countries, including a massive chunk of Israel’s population that came from Russia and Ukraine in the past 30 years and another large proportion with older roots in the region. Bennett and Zelensky are, it has been noted, the only two Jewish heads of government in the world. Zelensky’s steadfastness during these weeks of war has inspired the world, perhaps especially Jews worldwide, who now see him as a David defending both his homeland and democracy itself from the Goliath of Putin’s military. It would be remarkable if the prime minister of Israel were able to play a part in brokering the end to war and restoring national integrity to Ukraine.
In this space, we have been critical of cultural boycotts that target Israeli performers, athletes and others. Cultural interactions between citizens of diverse countries are the lifeblood of global civilization. In the case of real or proposed sanctions against Israel, the end-goal is ambiguous. Depending on the proponent, movements to boycott Israel aim to variously sanction particular policies, end the occupation or end Israel (as the term “anti-Zionist” implies). They are, for all intents, a punishment without end, given that the end-goal is vague. In the case of Russia, the hope is that the short, sharp shock of sanctions will lead to a satisfactory resolution and then we will ideally again soon welcome Russian performers and athletes, to say nothing of a return to trade with one of the world’s largest economies. The clarity of the call – leave Ukraine alone! – is critical to success. Unlike the undefined or obscured goals of BDS, the campaign against Russia is clear. If Russia retreats, sanctions will be peeled back.
There is another issue worth considering. It is notable that countries guilty of egregious crimes, such as the Chinese government’s imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of its Uyghur Muslim citizens and others, have not brought down the near-unanimous wrath of the West. Perhaps this is proof of the dictum that white lives elicit greater global concern than lives of people of colour. It may also be that the world understands that the invasion of Ukraine might be a precursor to greater territorial ambitions. It is also unavoidable that, for the Western collective memory, war in Europe evokes the gravest ghosts of the 20th century.
We will soon know whether the most comprehensive sanctions ever imposed (undergirded by materiel support) can end this conflict without the worst case scenario – direct conflagration between nuclear powers, Russia and the West – coming to pass. If they are successful, it would signal a new age in which concerted economic influence, rather than boots on the ground, can turn the tide of history.