Ukraine Is Calling for a Boycott of Russia. The U.S. Has Tried It Before.

By Sandra McDaniel

With the ban last week of Russian oil imports to the United States, President Biden was following the Cold War era playbook, economically isolating Vladimir Putin for his unprovoked assault on Ukraine. In the weeks since the invasion began, a growing list of big corporations, including Apple and McDonald’s, have cut business ties with Russia. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, suspended Russia and its teams, eliminating them from World Cup competition.

The calls to shun Russia today echo the way the Soviet Union was isolated in the 1980s through sanctions, boycotts, and embargoes.

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JULY 19, 1980 The Olympic flag was carried into the Lenin stadium at the opening ceremony for the 22nd Olympic Games in Moscow. Many athletes boycotted to protest the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Afghanistan. (Photo: AP Images)

In 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter imposed a grain embargo and assembled an international coalition to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, above. Carter also restricted Soviet fishing in American waters and suspended commercial Soviet flights. In 1982, President Reagan banned flights after a Soviet-led military crackdown in Poland.

Severing economic ties was criticized in the 80s as unfairly penalizing citizens who were at the mercy of their leaders. The Biden Administration has framed recent price increases, especially for gas, as “Putin’s inflation” or “Putin’s recession,” and has warned Americans that the sanctions may be costly.

“I said I will level with the American people from the beginning,” the president said, announcing the ban on energy imports earlier this month. “When I first spoke to this, I said defending freedom is going to cost. It is going to cost us as well in the United States.”

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Yale’s School of Management, maintains a list of companies that are adjusting their business practices with Russia. “This is one step away from open warfare,” he told The Washington Post. “This is a last-ditch effort. You’re helping those workers by not having [the West] dropping bombs and shooting them.”

Meanwhile, Koch Industries, one of several multinational corporations including Halliburton and Cargill that are continuing operations in Russia, issued a statement saying that exiting would put its “employees there at greater risk and do more harm than good.”

And some historians point to the another major boycott and sanction campaign, the movement in the 1980s to end South African apartheid, as proof that boycotts can work.

“The typical boycott doesn’t have much impact on sales revenue,” said Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. Nevertheless, King’s research has shown that boycotts can generate negative media coverage, threatening a company’s reputation.

“The No. 1 predictor of what makes a boycott effective is how much media attention it creates, not how many people sign onto a petition or how many consumers it mobilizes,” he said.

In his address to Congress on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked all American companies to leave Russia. “Peace is more important than income,” he said.

SANDRA McDANIEL is a producer at Retro Report. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

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