But is it? And if so, why?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been devastating, with thousands of civilians enduring bombardment and the prospect of starvation. According to many reports, Ukrainian civilians have been subjected to crimes including torture and rape. Ukrainian officials have said that the death toll in the city of Mariupol may have reached 20,000. Yes, political and economic stability have been jarred by the outbreak of war in Europe, but the principal toll of the fighting has been the human cost. It seems pretty clear to me, then, that any type of sanctions on the Russian or Belarusian governments or individuals should be implemented with the aim of making the Russian government stop bombing Ukrainian cities and killing Ukrainian civilians. The point isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the more nebulous goal to “limit Russia’s global influence.” The point should be to stop the carnage by ending the war, and bans and sanctions should be directed as precisely as possible toward that end. The problem with Russia’s war in Ukraine is not Russian citizens, even famous professional tennis players. The problem also isn’t a restaurant, such as Russia House, in Washington, DC, which reportedly was subjected to vandalism in the days after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. The problem with Russia’s war in Ukraine is, well, Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The idea behind sanctioning Russia’s economic engines was to limit Russia’s financial firepower and make continuing the war less feasible in the long term. The idea behind sanctioning Russian oligarchs living in London and elsewhere was, as the congressional foreign policy adviser Paul Massaro framed it last month, to “do the most damage to” President Putin’s “rogue state.”
But limiting Russian influence by banning Russian and Belarusian tennis players from Wimbledon is unlikely to bring about a swifter end to the war in Ukraine or concretely damage Putin’s regime. Where’s the evidence that Russia’s president will be swayed to rethink his military aggression if these athletes aren’t allowed to compete at Wimbledon? What makes the governing bodies of Wimbledon and the LTA think Putin will be devastated that Daniil Medvedev and Victoria Azarenka will not be heating up the courts at The Championships? Sports Illustrated reported that one player doubted Putin even cared about tennis.
By taking this action, Wimbledon hasn’t banned a team competing under the Russian or Belarusian flag. Tennis players are independent contractors. At major tournaments like Wimbledon, they aren’t competing for their countries. Even if fans back home cheer for them, they are competing for themselves.
So, what is the ban doing? It’s doing something. It’s performing the act of action. And perhaps that’s the point. The do-something impulse is among our strongest, even when, in many cases, there’s very little you, I or Wimbledon really can do to make the Russian government stop its campaign of violence against Ukrainians. Inaction can feel weak, but action, even when it’s ineffective, often feels strong.