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Just to be clear, I am neither in favour of Russia's war nor arguing against punishing it for the invasion. However, I have noticed a difference in rhetoric around what seems to me to be similar sorts of economic action (though this could well just be my ignorance talking).

Sanctions against Russia have cut it off from many different resources, companies have pulled out, thereby affecting many supply chains.

When Russia, disagreeing with the stance of another country in supporting its enemy, cuts off oil and gas in an attempt to use it as leverage in removing that support, it gets called blackmail.

It comes as no surprise that the Kremlin uses fossil fuels to try to blackmail us… Our response will be immediate, united and coordinated" ~ Ursula von der Leyen (President of the European Commission)

Is there an objective difference between the two uses of economic leverage that makes Russia's actions "blackmail" and the sanctions against them not-blackmail?

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    It's sanctions when it's applied against someone doing something bad. They are associated with rogue countries. So the EU isn't going to apply the same word to itself.
    – HK-51
    Apr 29 at 13:18
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    @HK-51 Sure and to Russia it's enemies are the ones doing something bad - so is it just a question of semantics? Apr 29 at 14:52
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    "Blackmail" definitely has a sinister ring to it. OTOH, I wonder if a private citizen could be successfully prosecuted for blackmail for accepting cash only even on existing contracts after half their bank accounts got frozen.
    – HK-51
    Apr 29 at 15:17

3 Answers 3

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There is.

Russia is being called out as blackmailing by the West.

The West is being called out as blackmailing by Russia.

i.e. no real difference in as far as the economic actions themselves (plenty of massive ethical differences in the war though) , but of course each side is going to play up how it's right and the other wrong.

In international relations, playing up to the gallery is par for the course. It works fairly well because the main influence target is typically a country's own people. Other people listen to their own governments and governments on all side hopefully see through the surface level verbiage. Third party country's people may listen to either side and there it helps to have built up some goodwill over time.

This is also about sovereign nations bickering and grandstanding. There is no central authority or judge that is going to be handing out a decision that says "well, we are throwing out this case because you are actually a hypocrite, because...".

The other thing to keep in mind is that Europe is not totally unified on Russian energy. Even before this started, plenty of countries (say group A) were criticizing others (say group B) on their reliance on Russian energy. Plenty of Russia gas is still being bought.

Calling out Russia as an unreliable supplier is a way to get group B countries to phase out gas.

p.s. It's even funnier when you realize VDL is calling out Russia for shutting off Russian gas while Europe is internally trying get its recalcitrant buyers of Russian gas to do just that, shutting off Russian gas.

p.p.s. There might also be some real differences when it comes to contractual obligations, that's harder to say. Oil and gas is often bought on long term contracts whereas say, Apple, doesn't have "a contract to sell iPhones in Russia". Then again Russian central bank funds are probably "contractually theirs" too.

p.p.p.s About that notion of goodwill. One thing that "the West" is getting to realize with this is that, while few nations are fond of Russia's war, some in the "global South" perceive Western outrage as double standards when it comes to military operations abroad, refugee acceptance, civilian casualties, etc... African and South American nations are, for example, often sitting this one out in the UN votes. Here's a Feb 25th snippet from Al Arabiya (a Saudi newspaper). I am not endorsing it, nor that paper, but it gives a notion of how others can see it.

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    I'm fairly certain I read somewhere that economic codependence was supposed to be Europe's way of deterring war with Russia (as opposed to the American way of arms racing and economic isolation). Well, they were absolutely right, so long as they are economically dependent on Russia it doesn't seem like war is on the table...
    – uberhaxed
    Apr 29 at 17:00
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    Perhaps Russia is getting called out by the Commission because they picked the wrong countries (shutting off gas to Poland which was anyway in favour of getting rid of any dependency on Russia ASAP). Had Putin decided to cut off Germany and Hungary instead, Brussels could have been much happier. :)
    – TooTea
    Apr 29 at 19:36
  • Lol, probably. VDL is German so then again maybe not. Apr 29 at 19:59
  • It's like both sides, Russia and the EU, are trying to do the same, but racing for who does it first. Or the opposite, waiting for the other side to do it, and doing it themselves if it doesn't.
    – HK-51
    Apr 29 at 21:10
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Just to be clear I'm not in favour of Russia's war and am not arguing against punishing it for the invasion.

Is there an objective difference between the two uses of economic leverage, that make's Russia's actions "blackmail" and the sanctions against them not?

These two parts of your question are somewhat at odds with each other. If you agree that the war is unjust, then unless you assert that Russia's actions are in response to an unjust war on the part of the West, there is a clear different between the uses. The term "blackmail" does not depend merely on the action threatened, but crucially depends on the aim. "I'll tell your spouse about your infidelity if you don't give me $10k" is blackmail. "I'll tell your spouse about your infidelity if you don't stop cheating" is not. If you agree that the war is unjust, and that the sanctions are a reasonable response to it, then the sanctions are not blackmail. If you agree that opposing the war is just, and that Russia's actions are unreasonably coercive, then Russia's actions are blackmail.

There is the further issue that AFAIK, Russia signed contracts agreeing to provide oil and gas at a pre-arranged price that was not denominated in rubles, so their current actions is violating their agreements, while (again, AFAIK) the West's sanctions don't violate their agreements (and, in fact, contracts leasing aircraft to Russian airlines specifically allow the contracts to be terminated in the event of sanctions).

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    The freezing of the foreign currency reserves of the Russian central bank could also be seen as breach of contract. Just saying.
    – Trilarion
    Apr 30 at 6:51
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    Freezing a counterparty's assets not only violates the agreements, but also compromises that party's ability to accept payment. I'm not sure this is even retaliatory, rather than just a scheme to avoid defaulting on their own debt.
    – HK-51
    Apr 30 at 8:50
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    I was asking for objective differences - the first paragraph is covering the subjective stance. The second paragraph does hint at something more real though - breaking a set contract is an objective difference. + 1 for that bit. Apr 30 at 14:07
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Yes, there is a difference.

The difference is in the resulting scale of the reduction of economic activity; and in which parties would reduce consumption as a result of those reductions.

The main consumer of the Russian natural gas is Germany. Germany is actively considering long-term measures to reduce its reliance on Russia's natural gas.

The sanctions are meant to get progressively worse with time. So next round of sanctions would always make the restrictions more severe than the last one. Eventually, (when Germany can manage without it) there will be sanctions which also reduce Germany's reliance on the Russian natural gas.

Given that the Russian Federation is quickly becoming an international pariah, the political pressure on Germany to cut its imports of Russia gas is significant. The blatantly criminal behavior of RF is causing a moral panic. This is even more impactful on Germany, which (because of its history) is more sensitive to avoiding behavior which can be viewed as encouraging genocides.

In light of this, Russia's cutting of supply to Poland and Bulgaria can be viewed as warning shots, fired with the hope of causing reduction in economic activity in both countries. If it succeeds, it can create an economic panic in Germany which may create a counter-narrative to the moral panic political narrative.

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