Demagoguery Won’t Stop Moscow’s Aggression: West Should Stop Sacrificing Principles in Ukraine’s Name

Chris Bryant, the British MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia, appears to be either a fool or knave. He confuses banning Russian tennis players from Wimbledon with defeating Moscow in war. And demagogues anyone who questions punishing people who have done nothing other than be born in Russia.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine was unjustified and has had hideous consequences. But it isn’t the only terrible tragedy that occurred in the world. Indeed, the morality asserted by Britain’s Lawn Tennis Association, which is banning Russian and Belarusian citizens from its tournaments, most importantly Wimbledon, is highly selective.

For instance, a fragile ceasefire holds in Yemen, where Washington spent more than seven years helping Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates kill hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians. Why didn’t Wimbledon bar Emirati, Saudi, and US players from the tournament?

Syria was ravaged by more than a decade of war in which many of the Western nations backing Kyiv intervened in an attempt to oust the Assad government, effectively allying with al-Qaeda. The country is still occupied by multiple foreign countries, including Iran and Russia at Damascus’ request and the US and Turkey, along with a variety of insurgents and separatists, acting against the Syrian government. Why didn’t Wimbledon exclude Americans, Iranians, Russians, and Turks?

Burma’s brutal military junta continues to kill and imprison opponents with the country increasingly beset by both rural and urban conflict. This continues six decades of military-dominated rule. Why didn’t Britain’s tennis overlords ever ban Burmese players?

Consider the long list of other wars that have killed and destroyed prodigiously. There was America’s invasion of Iraq, in which the United Kingdom was complicit. A couple decades ago the Democratic Republic of the Congo was aflame, with more than five million people ultimately dying. The Turkish government spent years wrecking Kurdish villages and killing thousands of Kurdish civilians. NATO illegally took the offensive against Yugoslavia, which had neither attacked nor threatened a member state. The US and allies fomented the Libyan civil war, which has yet to yield a stable government and peace. Yet when has Wimbledon ever before acted in any conflict, some of which featured London as a combatant?

If Ukraine was the start of a concerted Wimbledon campaign to right the world’s wrongs, perhaps the LTA’s past biases could be excused. However, that seems unlikely. Rather, the tennis ban looks like a sophisticated form of special pleading, with officials concerned only about a war seen as particularly threatening by Europeans. In previous decades they ignored endless wars elsewhere in the world. When the danger came closer they suddenly discovered a conscience.

The bigger problem, however, is the fact they are playacting. Everything they do is for show, to appear concerned about Russian aggression. Their actions are designed to win public favor, nothing more. It appears that the LTA just didn’t want to be left out of the moralizing majority. The group explained: "Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia’s global influence through the strongest means possible."

What was the devastating blow struck by Wimbledon against the Kremlin? The LTA did not ban Vladimir Putin from playing. Or his generals. Or Russian soldiers who committed war crimes. Or Russian government PR operatives.

Rather, it excluded Russians, that is, people born in Russia. Some of whom live abroad. Whose families have moved overseas as well. Who receive no Russian institutional support. And who have criticized the war.

Wow, that will show Putin. It is doubtful that Moscow can recover from such a devastating blow. Ukraine’s victory may be only days away!

Opined the All England Club, which hosts Wimbledon: "In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players." And how would it do that? Apparently officials feared what would happen if a Russian player, most likely Daniil Medvedev, the number two ranked male player, triumphed in singles and received the trophy from a member of royal family.

Seriously. Perhaps tennis officials have mistaken the trophy for the fabled Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant and imagine that the entire world would kneel before it, transfixed by its power and inexorably pulled under Vladimir Putin’s control. Maybe LTA leaders watched Raiders of the Lost Ark a few too many times when they were young! They imagine that a Russian victory would end freedom and trigger the descent of a new Dark Ages upon the earth. Or something like that.

Wimbledon’s inflated self-importance is extraordinary to behold. Tennis players compete as individuals, not on behalf of countries. Most of the world doesn’t stop to worship the grass tourney champions. No one will judge Russia’s cause or military progress based on who stands supreme in July as the Wimbledon finals conclude.

Rather, Moscow’s success and Putin’s influence will depend on whether the Russian military has overcome its initial failures and secured sizable territorial gains in Ukraine. Whether Putin has declared full mobilization to achieve something that can be plausibly called a victory. Whether he has used chemical or nuclear weapons to break Ukrainian resistance and/or forestall allied intervention. Whether the conflict has expanded to NATO.

None of these will be affected by instituting collective punishment and holding individual players responsible for policies they do not control.

But MP Chris Bryant, basking in the glory leading the public campaign against Russia, is unhappy to have the LTA called on its cynical hypocrisy.

The Association of Tennis Professionals, which represents male players, announced that it would deny ranking points to Wimbledon for excluding Russian and Belarusian players. If so, one of the four grand slam tourneys will effectively become an exhibition event. Rafa Nadal, who sits alongside Roger Federer on the ATP player council, explained: "At the end, that’s our job: to protect the players and to work [to] the benefit of every single player that we are representing." At least someone recognizes the unfairness of trying to burnish one’s reputation at the expense of someone simply born in Russia.

Of course, this set off predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth by those intent on looking good. The All England Club asserted that it had "no viable alternative" in order "to avoid being used to benefit the propaganda machine of the Russian regime." What do they imagine Vladimir Putin doing if a Russian wins? Perform a happy dance in Red Square accompanied by a Greek Chorus singing his praises?

The Brits are alone in their illusions that world events hang on their tennis tournaments. The organizers of the other two upcoming grand slams – the French and US Opens (the Australian occurred before Russia’s invasion) – see no need to exclude players from Russia and Belarus. Even the French, who think almost as much about their tennis tournament as their language, don’t imagine they are capable of defeating the Russian military from Paris.

While the All England Club’s reaction was pitiful, Bryant’s was pure demagoguery. He went on the attack, declaring that "Federer and Nadal should come clean. Do they want Vladimir Putin to fail or don’t they care?" He added: "The men’s tour are behaving appallingly. It’s like they haven’t heard what is happening in Ukraine or don’t care."

Actually, Nadal and Federer probably are aware of the war. However, in contrast to the PR hound Bryant, they don’t see how punishing Russian tennis players for Russia’s war policy is going to end the war, force Moscow’s withdrawal, yield Russian reparations, overthrow Putin, lead to democracy in Russia, and whatever else Bryant fantasizes happening.

Perhaps even more ludicrous was the implied threat from Clive Efford, an MP who serves on the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport select committee. He warned: "The ATP needs to take a look around and appreciate how the rest of the world outside its bubble will view it for sanctioning Wimbledon for supporting Ukraine."

Surely Efford realizes that he is spouting nonsense. First, the issue is not supporting Ukraine – very few people anywhere back Russia’s invasion. Rather, the issue is punishing innocent players for events beyond their control and taking actions that won’t have the slightest impact on Moscow’s actions. Most who wish Ukraine well don’t attempt to gain political advantage, like Bryant and Efford.

Second, "the rest of the world" is not demanding action against players for reasons of their birth in Russia or Belarus. There have been no mass demonstrations in Paris and Washington, D.C. insisting that the French and US Opens bar participation of Russian and Belarusian players. French and US legislators and government officials are not parading about, preening before the cameras and insisting that "their" tennis officials follow Britain’s example. That fact that the squalid vote-chasing solons on Capitol Hill have not done so indicates that they don’t perceive any public interest in the issue.

Although Wimbledon has won the most public attention for its demonization of individual Russians, in the early days of the war leagues were banning Russian teams, symphonies were firing Russian conductors and singers, the International Chess Federation was excluding Russian players, and more. Indeed, the culture warriors recently targeted Russian DJ Nina Kraviz, a sometime Putin supporter who has maintained a studious silence about the ongoing conflict. Whatever their varying moral equities, none of these people are responsible for the war, has the power to halt the invasion, or can improve Moscow’s international image. The punishment would not make a practical difference for Ukrainians under siege. Instead, the actions were intended to make the punishers feel good at the expense of people born in or otherwise citizens of the wrong country.

Vladimir Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine. He is responsible for Russia’s criminal aggression. Not Russian tennis players. Or other individuals unlucky enough at this moment to have been born in Russia. When the war ends it will be vital to reintegrate Russia and especially Russians into the international community. The process should begin by dropping efforts at collective punishment at Wimbledon or elsewhere.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.