Punishments mustn’t play into Putin’s hands

Evidence continues to emerge of the atrocities committed by Vladimir Putin’s armies in Ukraine. The images of mass graves, murdered civilians and other outrages in Bucha, outside of Kyiv, have prompted a strong response from Western leaders, rhetorically at least.

The Spanish prime minister yesterday said that it was a possible genocide. The Polish leader, Mateusz Morawiecki, called for an international probe, while condemning Emmanuel Macron for his talks with Putin. But the question must be what practical measures the West intends to take now to punish the Kremlin for its crimes. In particular, it is to be hoped that Germany’s resistance to a tougher response can be overcome: Berlin’s purchase of billions of euros of oil and gas has been blamed for financing Putin’s war-machine.

However, punitive measures should also seek as far as possible to distinguish between those responsible for the devastating crimes being inflicted on Ukraine and Russians in general, many of whom oppose their government. Boris Johnson has cautioned against horror at Moscow’s actions descending into so-called Russophobia.

What exactly would be the point of banning the Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev from Wimbledon, for example? Following remarks from the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, that Putin should not be allowed to make political capital from the success of Russian athletes in Britain, the All England Club is said to be ready to exclude Medvedev from the tournament.

The argument seems to be that he should only be permitted to compete if he agrees to denounce Putin’s invasion. Yet it is not impossible that doing so could put his family at risk in Russia, especially given the regime’s violent intolerance of dissent. In any case, Medvedev is a sportsman, not a politician or an oligarch whose position depends on proximity to the Kremlin. At other tournaments, Russian players can compete without flags or the national anthem.

One of the arguments deployed by Putin to justify his aggression is that the West is hostile to the Russian people, not just his government. He has painted a picture of a country besieged by its enemies, blaming external forces for the calamity that he is himself responsible for. Like previous calls to ban Tchaikovksy’s music or Dostoyevsky’s novels, it would be a mistake to punish Russian tennis players for the sins of their leader. It risks playing into Putin’s hands.

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