Can you recall the last time you read an opinion piece that was so succinct and passionate that you felt your pulse start to beat that little bit faster? Do you remember the subject that was being argued about or where it appeared? From the moment on July 17, when news flashed that a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 had crashed in eastern Ukraine, and that the likely cause was a long-range missile fired by separatist rebels under Russia’s watch, I’ve been scanning the international press. I have been looking for an unapologetic, direct and angry condemnation of not only President Vladimir Putin’s unacceptable behaviour surrounding the downing of the aircraft but also his appalling behaviour within and beyond Russia’s borders.
I was so impressed by The Economist’s July 26 leader on the Russian menace that I read it aloud to those around me. There was no arguing two sides, no weighing up of potential consequences, no softening of tone or attempt to leave the door ajar in the final paragraph. The message was clear – the world needs to come down hard on Putin.
It was maddening, almost sickening, to watch news bulletins showing international observers and inspectors attempting to get to the crash site being messed around by thugs controlling the area. Days later it was disheartening to hear world leaders agreeing that it wouldn’t make sense to secure the site via armed intervention. Why not? And, I wondered, would it have been different had it been a KLM flight rather than a Malaysian airliner?
I thought Australian prime minister Tony Abbott might act decisively by deploying soldiers to secure the crash site on behalf of all other nations and restore some dignity in the scarred fields. Sadly, it didn’t happen. On Tuesday, July 29, a proposed set of sanctions, targeting Russia’s energy, banking and defence sectors, were agreed upon in Brussels and Washington – but there wasn’t much in the way of bite. In an editorial the following day, the FT made it clear that strict sanctions must be enforced – and that relations with Russia “will be difficult and even dangerous for years to come”.
Would these sanctions hurt? Yes, but over time, analysts said. Is the man or woman on the street in Penang, The Hague and Brisbane (and beyond) outraged by this timid response? Absolutely. While many of us might feel frustrated that elected leaders haven’t gone far enough and there’s little we can do to make an impact on Moscow, I suggest that we – collectively as consumers – might want to consider starting a homegrown round of sanctions.
State-sponsored sanctions will take time to trickle down, but by refusing to buy Russian-made products and stopping our support for Russian-owned services, ordinary people will get the message across much faster.
It didn’t take long to scan my environment to find a way of taking action. I realised that the drinking glasses in my London office were made in Russia (and sold by a global purveyor of DIY furniture). I had my assistant round them up and send them back to the company’s press office explaining we wouldn’t be buying any more of the shop’s Russian-made products.
Another colleague had recently purchased knitwear from one of the big fashion retailers and she was surprised to see it was made in Russia. The garment industry would be another sector for consumers to target. Someone else wondered what might happen if one of the major petrol service-station brands started a “fill up here, there’s nothing Russian in our pumps” campaign. Would other companies follow? Would aircraft be prevented from pushing back from their gates because passengers needed to know they weren’t speeding through the air propelled by Russian jet fuel?
And what, I wonder, would happen if high-spending Russians suddenly found their holidays in Italy had been thwarted because an airport authority decided to revoke landing rights? Or if a group of hotel owners decided to cancel reservations from Russian guests?
Many of Putin’s wealthier countrymen might admire their leader from afar and go along with his nationalistic lunacy but the mood would quickly change if western luxuries that used to be just a four-hour flight away were suddenly snatched from them and August holidays had to be taken in shoddy resorts on the Black Sea.
At the same time, such actions would be a useful wake-up call for too many European businesses that have been having an easy time milking money from a Russian market desperate to be wooed by the west. Smart chairmen should be advising their management teams to stop courting consumers from Perm to St Petersburg – for the simple reason that the current Russian regime must go, and only its own citizens can point the way to the exit.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine