Severity of Russia sanctions may be ominous sign for Israel - opinion

Since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, the world has issued many sanctions against the country, Putin and Russian oligarchs.

illustrative image of a gas pipeline. (photo credit: HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/REUTERS)
illustrative image of a gas pipeline.

How would Israelis react to true pariah status? Would they trade trips to the US, Eurovision invites and a humming economy for the eternal control of the West Bank? The question is implicit as we ponder whether sanctions on Russia will impact its conduct in Ukraine.

The punishing response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion is a tweaked globalization being taken for a spin. It holds out the interesting (and also disconcerting) prospect of a planetary cancel culture in which cynicism is less pronounced and independence is less real.

This is bracing because economic sanctions have been widely disrespected. They project less moral stiffness than marching off in armor to fight the oppressors of the world.

But we doth mock too much. What recommends them is that no one’s otherwise uninvolved son must die in this armor and they can sometimes work. But some conditions must prevail.

One is that the population of the targeted country be rational – that people accurately understand their situation and the choices they face. This is determined by the quality of information available captive media flooding the zone with propaganda does not breed understanding.

 Plastic letters arranged to read ''Sanctions'' and solider toys are placed in front of Ukraine's and Russia's flag colors in this illustration taken February 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION) Plastic letters arranged to read ''Sanctions'' and solider toys are placed in front of Ukraine's and Russia's flag colors in this illustration taken February 25, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

Does this apply in the case of Russia? The country has tremendous literacy and an impressive intelligentsia, but its media is controlled by a dictatorship, and a long history of such rule has bred conspiracy theorizing and overthinking. Do most people understand what’s going on today? Not so clear.

The second condition is that public opinion should matter in the targeted country – which largely means that it must be a democracy.

In Russia, this clearly no longer applies. That is one reason why sanctions against it, until the current crisis, were half-hearted; there’s reluctance to punish an already suffering population. But there’s also a limit to this logic; even non-democracies can overthrow their rulers.

The West is hoping to target the centers of power around Putin, to focus their minds. On a cartoon level this means the oligarchs, but really it is about targeting the several thousand members of the nouveau nomenklatura who roost more modestly by his trough, receiving political fiefdoms, positions in the security apparatus or financial gain. There may be optimism in expecting this cabal to organize an overthrow; if Putin were to go, the masses might show them bastille.

The third condition that is needed is for a country to not be close to self-sufficient. Russia is important – its economy is the 11th-largest in the world despite a low per capita GDP, but it needs materials, technology, parts and currency. Unlike the US, it can probably be smoked out.

Fourth, the sanctions must be serious. Putin was right to liken this to warfare and when you have to shoot, shoot.

The sanctions against Russia are not quite there, but they’re close. What is left to be done is to remove all its banks from SWIFT, not some, and ban all trade and financial transactions with the country. This is tricky mainly because of Europe’s addiction to Russian natural gas; but winter will soon be over and alternatives exist. As it is, Russians can forget about participating in international events for a while and the elite can hope to travel in the metaverse perhaps.

The current sanctions far exceed the familiar half-hearted measures by weaselly governments seeking only to appear to have done something (as Israelis assume, with some justification, of the intermittent sanctions against Iran).

Next, the time must be right. The issue has to either mature, as the hatred of the South African Apartheid system eventually did, or to be catalyzed by a shocking event, as the Ukraine invasion has proven to be.

INDEED, THE West’s actions betray more than fervor for Ukraine’s independence. It is also a reaction to all the other foulness that the West has watched with impotence: The dirty trickery of Putin’s destruction of a nascent democracy, the skullduggery of bizarre poisoning plots in foreign lands, the viciousness of the war that flattened Grozny, and the interference in American and other elections aimed at sowing instability. We are seeing an explosion of anger at Putin and his ways.

This crossing of a rubicon can be summed up in Germany’s overnight transformation from a Putin enabler to a country willing to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline meant to supply it with natural gas. Germans will pay for this, yet almost no one has complained.

The most interesting and perhaps difficult condition – given the fractiousness of the human condition – is to approach global consensus. It will not do if Germany’s on board and the US is not.

The sanctions against Russia – which Israel, for a variety of reasons, is not eager to embrace – come close. The discourse right now is whether the Chinese would or even could bail out a collapsing Russia (and China has interest in seeing the world abandon Ukraine as a precedent for an assault on Taiwan).

Indeed, it is remarkable how the world, public opinion and governments have largely rallied around the not-heroic-but-still-upstanding idea of supporting Ukraine’s struggle with absolutely everything short of military intervention. It may not save the government of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Putin still has his admirers, but it is still a sight to see.

It is very difficult to conjure up this degree of consensus. But if one scoured the globe for other major policies of an important country that are hated by almost all, it would have to be Israel’s actions in the West Bank: The occupation adventure and the settlement misadventure. Putin has more fans than the Yesha Council. From Japan to California, in every corner of EMEA, Israel’s actions are seen as a scourge. Ironically, some of Israel’s enemies are more likely to accept it than its friends because the demographic math is fatal to the Zionist project.

As some readers will doubtless point out, the BDS movement so far has failed. Its weakness is that it is viewed as an activist group that seems to be at least in part opposed to Israel’s very right to exist. Moreover, despite the planetary distaste of the occupation, the rubicon of anger has not quite been crossed and a seminal event has not yet occurred.

But it’s always wise to plan ahead.

We are living in an era in which the new generation demands social responsibility of companies, which have diversity and sustainability officers who do not serve the bottom line. This will almost certainly extend to governments. Against this moving goalpost, the danger to Israel is from a confluence of circumstances that changes the equation.

That could come from a new explosion of violence, but perhaps more likely is a collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a demand by the Palestinians, by then arguably inseparable due to the large amount of settlers in their midst, for Israeli citizenship.

Add to that the possibility that at some point the US may elect an unfriendly progressive government, which is probably 10 years away. The US Jews are limited in power and the youth among them are anyway distancing from Israel. If the US leads, the Europeans will follow. Israel’s innovation sector will not protect it.

In such a scenario, I suspect Israel will not be necessarily pressured to abandon the West Bank; it may be pressured to make the Palestinians citizens and voluntarily end the dominance of Jews in the state.

As for the other conditions: Its people are (mostly) rational, public opinion matters and it is not self-sufficient. It should be interesting; it would be horrible.

A note to the bot battalions: I don’t want sanctions on Israel but am rather trying to see two steps ahead. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but those who cannot see the future are condemned to walk into a wall.

The writer is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press, served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at