As the Russian invasion of Ukraine carries on, economic sanctions remain the principal deterrence strategy of the United States and other Western countries. But they are ultimately a suboptimal solution. Often overlooked and oversimplified, cultural sanctions, which aim to ostracize Russia from cultural exchange, would supplement purely economic approaches. Their combination with traditional economic sanctions would produce a more comprehensive strategy to undermine Russia’s invasion.
Current economic sanctions aim to exclude Russia from international economic activity and impose financial costs on the Russian economy. While economic sanctions are compelling tools to mitigate conflict, they do not address Russian President Vladimir Putin’s central motivation. The invasion of Ukraine was not instigated by potential economic gains; rather, it was motivated by a desire to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence across the former Soviet Bloc, a goal that was spread using state-manufactured rhetoric vilifying alleged Western aggression. If economic gains are not President Putin’s primary objective, then economic repercussions alone will not end the war.
A cultural sanction aims to disrupt collective and social continuity within a state and, in turn, weaken the state’s sense of self. Recent examples include the International Chess Federation canceling chess tournaments in Russia and Belarus, FIFA suspending Russia from the World Cup, the International Judo Federation stripping President Putin of his honorary presidency, the United States and EU banning alcohol and seafood imports from Russia, and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera cutting ties with pro-Putin artists. Although individually implemented, these actions collectively dismember and isolate Russia’s international cultural expression, undermining President Putin’s “blood and soil” arguments that move his armies and drive his desire for expansion.
President Putin’s primary justification for the invasion rests on a shared cultural identity between Russia and Ukraine. The word Ukraine means “borderlands” in Russian, and throughout its history, the region has been culturally entangled with Russia. During the Soviet era, Ukraine was a critical part of the state, with Luhansk and Donetsk serving as key industrial centers. To this day, the eastern half of Ukraine is predominantly composed of ethnic Russians. However, President Putin’s attempts to capitalize on Russia’s cultural resemblance to Ukraine do not reflect historical sentiments and will be directly undermined by cultural sanctions. With many experts agreeing that it is not if, but when, Russia will capture large portions of Ukraine, the true test of President Putin’s ambitions will be whether he can stabilize Ukraine after the invasion. When an imperial power attempts to stabilize an occupied territory, a sense of vision is critical. Stabilization requires giving the occupied people a reason to accept new authority, feel secure, and find a purpose within the new state.
One tactic President Putin may use to manufacture Ukrainian allegiance to Russia is promoting the return of a postwar Soviet-era identity. However, such rhetoric has so far largely incited resistance rather than submission—in much of Ukraine, life under Soviet rule was marked by oppression. Some historians argue that Soviet-era famines were targeted genocides aimed at killing ethnic Ukrainians: The Holodomor under Stalin claimed the lives of 3.9 million people, or 13 percent of the Ukrainian population. For many Ukrainians, Soviet reign understandably evokes sentiments of distrust. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, Soviet officials desperately attempted to cover up the extent of Chernobyl’s safety failures and dangers, exposing more than 600,000 Ukrainian clean-up workers to life-threatening radiation. Cultural sanctions have the potential to invalidate Russia’s self-crafted image as a utopian state that former Soviet bloc countries, such as Ukraine, should desire to rejoin. Through the unveiling of Soviet-era transgressions, Ukrainians will be reminded of their original motivation for pursuing independence, further fueling their resistance to Russian influence and propaganda.
Cultural sanctions may also catalyze resistance to the Russian regime from within Russia. In light of recent cultural sanctions, dissent has grown among prominent Russian national figures. In the past several months, Russian tennis players, chess players, singers, and rappers have spoken out against the war and their country’s regime. Losing the allegiance of cultural figures encumbers Russia’s efforts to gain political and social control over sovereign Eastern European states like Ukraine. A government whose own athletes, artists, and thinkers fiercely renounce its actions cannot expect to generate sympathy and pride from its people, much less the Ukrainians it attempts to conquer. Reacting to these challenges to his authority, President Putin criticized the West for “trying to cancel a whole 1,000-year culture” in a speech in March of this year. By saying this, President Putin declared that his country’s identity was under siege. However, in reality, cultural sanctions have spawned dissonance within Russia as Russian nationals attempt to reclaim their identity by separating it from President Putin’s oppressive regime.
Another tactic President Putin could attempt to use to stabilize Ukraine is advocating for a new unified national future, one that is entirely divorced from the violent Soviet past and current Russian aggression. Romanticized visions of a new Russia, often referred to as Novorossiya, can also be undermined by cultural sanctions. As the invasion progresses, foreign observers and Russian nationals are beginning to dissociate President Putin’s Russia from Ukrainian cultural institutions. More specifically, the world is beginning to recognize Ukrainian culture as sharing characteristics with Russia’s yet possessing its own unique, independent essence. This is a critical phenomenon, as cultural foundations are crucial in supporting and justifying national narratives. Against the backdrop of widespread globalization, President Putin’s vision becomes even more difficult to justify: It is no longer a rarity, much less grounds for forced unification, for two countries to share cultural elements or ethnic populations. In other words, forging a vision of a state based purely on ethnic or cultural similarities is not sustainable.
Cultural sanctions highlight the irrationality and impossibility of invading and occupying sovereign nations in the modern era. The cultural sanctions imposed on Russia will make it harder for Russia to stabilize Ukraine—regardless of the outcome of the immediate invasion— and promote new narratives of freedom from oppression for Ukrainians and Russians alike. To fully maximize these effects, it will be crucial for international cultural institutions to publicly unite in their opposition to war. Alone, cultural sanctions may not leave a lasting impact, but combining them with traditional economic sanctions has the potential to reshape the conflict. In this way, art, music, food, scholarship, and sport can become more than just arenas for entertainment and aesthetics. They can become political battlefields through which people can usher in profound change.