Why sanc­tions on Rus­sia don’t work

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

The West­ern ap­proach to Rus­sia is pred­i­cated on the sup­po­si­tion that con­tin­ued pres­sure on the coun­try will cause Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s regime to make con­ces­sions or even crum­ble. Noth­ing could be fur­ther from the truth.

The as­sump­tion un­der­ly­ing the ef­fi­cacy of West­ern sanc­tions is that the sharp eco­nomic de­te­ri­o­ra­tion that re­sults from them will turn the Rus­sian public, par­tic­u­larly the fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal elite, against the Krem­lin. Putin will not be able to with­stand mount­ing dis­sent from af­flu­ent ur­ban ar­eas and the coun­try’s bur­geon­ing mid­dle class.

Mean­while, the think­ing goes, mil­i­tary pres­sure – in the form of po­ten­tial lethal aid to Ukraine – will sim­i­larly mo­bi­lize or­di­nary Rus­sians against Putin. Un­will­ing to see their boys die for the Don­bas, they will form an anti-war move­ment that will force him to rein in his ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions. Pressed at once from above and from be­low, the Krem­lin will be have to change its poli­cies, and per­haps even begin to de­moc­ra­tize.

What West­ern pol­i­cy­mak­ers fail to un­der­stand is that such an ap­proach is less likely to un­der­mine the regime than to cause Rus­sians to close ranks be­hind it. Opin­ion polls show that Rus­sians per­ceive West­ern pres­sure and sanc­tions to be aimed not at Putin and his cronies, but at Rus­sia and its cit­i­zens. In Jan­uary, 69% of Rus­sians sup­ported the Krem­lin’s pol­icy in Ukraine, ac­cord­ing to a poll by the in­de­pen­dent Le­vada Cen­ter.

To be sure, Putin’s sup­port is not rock­solid; in­deed, there is wide­spread sus­pi­cion about cor­rup­tion in his gov­ern­ment. But Rus­sians have a long tra­di­tion of de­fend­ing their com­pa­tri­ots from out­siders. And in this case, the com­pa­tri­ots un­der attack are Putin and his gov­ern­ment.

Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda taps a deep well of na­tion­al­ism, art­fully play­ing off sen­ti­ments and im­agery from World War II. Known in the coun­try as the Great Pa­tri­otic War, the ef­fort to de­fend the coun­try from Ger­man in­va­sion re­mains sa­cred to many Rus­sians. That is why the Krem­lin has repack­aged deroga­tory his­tor­i­cal terms like “Nazis” to re­fer to Ukraine’s cur­rent po­lit­i­cal elites.

Rus­sian so­ci­ety has been mil­i­ta­rized for decades, if not cen­turies. Mil­i­tary pre­pared­ness was one of the most im­por­tant shared val­ues in the Soviet Union – a sen­ti­ment cap­tured in the slo­gan em­bla­zoned on the badges is­sued to chil­dren who ex­celled in ath­let­ics: “Ready for Work and De­fense.”

It is in this con­text that Putin has been able to use West­ern pres­sure as a tool to re­gain the sup­port of many Rus­sians, who only a few years ago would have felt de­tached from, if not alien­ated by, his gov­ern­ment. Pre­sented with a real or imag­ined threat to the fa­ther­land, the av­er­age Rus­sian sup­ports the coun­try’s lead­ers.

Nor is the Rus­sian mid­dle class, which makes up some 20-30% of the pop­u­la­tion, likely to pose much of a threat to Putin. With many of its mem­bers ow­ing their re­cent wealth to high oil prices and the eco­nomic re­cov­ery of the 2000s, loy­alty to the Putin regime is one of the Rus­sian mid­dle class’s abid­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Rus­sian opin­ion polling and so­ci­o­log­i­cal re­search tends to show that the higher one’s po­si­tion in so­ci­ety, the more likely one is to vote for the in­cum­bents. The mo­tives be­hind such vot­ing pat­terns may vary – some vot­ers made a for­tune dur­ing the eco­nomic re­cov­ery, while oth­ers are sim­ply sat­is­fied with the sta­tus quo. But the bot­tom line is that such vot­ers demon­strate a fun­da­men­tal loy­alty to the state and the regime.

In­deed, only a small por­tion of the mid­dle class at­tended the protests that gath­ered force in late 2011 and early 2012, most of them con­cen­trated in Moscow. And, in any case, Putin’s clam­p­down on dis­sent was pre­dictably ruth­less. He tight­ened leg­is­la­tion aimed at throt­tling civil so­ci­ety, pur­sued law­suits against pro­test­ers, and blocked the ac­tiv­ity of Alexei Navalny, a promis­ing op­po­si­tion politi­cian. Th­ese ef­forts have had a last­ing ef­fect on the groups that were at the heart of the protest move­ment.

Rus­sians of all walks of life have shown that they pre­fer pas­sive adap­ta­tion over protest. In the face of grow­ing eco­nomic pres­sures, Rus­sia’s mid­dle class is steer­ing clear of po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment. The work­ing class is no dif­fer­ent. The more the West in­creases its pres­sure, the less likely it be­comes that this will change.

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