COM­MEN­TARY Pun­ish­ing Putin Mostly Means Pun­ish­ing his Foes

The Baltic Times - - COMMENTARY - Leonid Ber­shid­sky

Af­ter be­ing sur­prised by broad-based protests in late March, the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties were ready to pre­vent a re­peat on Mon­day. Po­lice de­tained hun­dreds across the coun­try as well as op­po­si­tion leader Alexei Navalny. The protests them­selves were thin­ner, too -- plan­ning to be ar­rested, which is likely, is not for ev­ery­one -- but thou­sands still turned out.

As I watched footage of po­lice pulling peo­ple out of the crowds in Moscow, St. Pe­ters­burg and dozens of other Rus­sian cities, I couldn't help but won­der if U.S. politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors call­ing for eco­nomic sanc­tions against Rus­sia re­al­ize who they are ul­ti­mately hurt­ing. Is it Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin's re­pres­sive regime or the small num­ber of coura­geous Rus­sians he is re­press­ing?

Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham on Sun­day called for "pun­ish­ing" Rus­sia "for try­ing to de­stroy democ­racy" -- the U.S. democ­racy, that is -- and a group of leg­is­la­tors is work­ing to com­bine var­i­ous Rus­sia sanc­tions pro­pos­als into a sin­gle amend­ment to a pop­u­lar bill in­tro­duc­ing sanc­tions against Iran. Th­ese pro­pos­als would cod­ify the re­stric­tions on Rus­sia im­posed by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and add more mea­sures against Rus­sia's en­ergy and de­fense in­dus­tries. Barack Obama sought to change Putin's cal­cu­lus with the sanc­tions; now the only goal ap­pears to be pun­ish­ing him as a re­sponse to his al­leged med­dling.

Upon closer ex­am­i­na­tion, sanc­tions have been a ques­tion­able de­ter­rent: Putin has held on to Crimea, con­tin­ued back­ing Rus­sian prox­ies in East­ern Ukraine and waded into bat­tle in Syria on be­half of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad. Putin's regime is far from tee­ter­ing, and it's not in­ter­na­tion­ally iso­lated, ei­ther.

But Navalny -- who was picked up on Mon­day be­fore he got any­where near the rally he or­ga­nized on Moscow's main street -- and peo­ple like him have re­ceived more than their fair share of pun­ish­ment dur­ing the lat­est run of sanc­tions. Asked what he thought of them in early 2015, six months af­ter the re­stric­tions were in­tro­duced, Navalny ap­peared to think they were hav­ing some de­ter­rence ef­fect on Putin and weak­en­ing his do­mes­tic po­si­tion -but he also said this:

So far they're only push­ing [Putin] to dig in deeper: Toughen the pol­icy of re­pres­sion, shut up the me­dia, con­tinue the war in Ukraine. I can't say much about the longterm prospects.

Putin's use of the ob­vi­ous Western hos­til­ity to­ward Rus­sia as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for tight­en­ing the screws has been vis­i­bly, tan­gi­bly suc­cess­ful. An April poll by the Le­vada Cen­ter, one of the last in­de­pen­dent poll­sters in Rus­sia, showed that 28 per cent of Rus­sians be­lieved Navalny was "work­ing for the in­ter­ests of the West." Only 12 per cent said he was work­ing for Rus­sian in­ter­ests.

Navalny keeps fight­ing, say­ing he's run­ning for pres­i­dent -- likely against Putin in 2018-- de­spite be­ing dis­qual­i­fied be­cause of a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion on trumped-up charges. Mon­day's protests, planned long in ad­vance for Rus­sia's In­de­pen­dence Day, were part of his cam­paign, based on the anti-cor­rup­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tions run by Navalny's non-profit foun­da­tion. The most re­cent one of th­ese tar­geted Prime Min­is­ter Dmitri Medvedev and the shady non-prof­its, run by his friends, that own sev­eral lux­ury es­tates used by Medvedev.

The Moscow au­thor­i­ties had agreed to let Navalny and his sup­port­ers gather on one of the cen­tral av­enues, but then the cor­rup­tion fighter failed to find con­trac­tors to build a stage for the rally: Moscow firms acted as if he were toxic. In protest against the tac­tic, Navalny moved the ac­tion to Tver­skaya, an un­sanc­tioned lo­ca­tion where po­lice im­me­di­ately swooped in to de­tain more than 700 of those who showed up. Some 500 were picked up in St. Pe­ters­burg and hun­dreds more in other Rus­sian cities. And as Navalny him­self was ar­rested while try­ing to leave the high-rise build­ing where he lives, elec­tric­ity at his of­fice was cut off to dis­able his Youtube chan­nel.

With so few Rus­sian news out­lets dar­ing to cover the protests, Yan­dex News, the coun­try's most pow­er­ful news ag­gre­ga­tor, doesn't even pick up on the cov­er­age. Navalny blasted Yan­dex for this in a blog post on Mon­day (the screen­shot he used has a story about the U.S. sanc­tions bill on top, as it hap­pens) -- but in re­al­ity, Putin's pro­pa­ganda has drowned out all other voices. At the same time, protest­ing has be­come riskier be­cause of the de­ten­tions and beat­ings, and it's grown harder for op­po­si­tion lead­ers to run ef­fec­tive cam­paigns, be­cause busi­nesses whose ser­vices they need are scared of re­tal­i­a­tion.

As Rus­sia in­vaded Crimea in 2014, I at­tended protests in Moscow along with lots of se­date, mid­dle-aged cit­i­zens; I even brought my kids. Now, that would be out of the ques­tion, so it's mainly young peo­ple with lit­tle to lose and a pen­chant for risk who show up.

It would have been im­pos­si­ble to de­sign sanc­tions in a way that would have de­nied Putin this tool of re­pres­sion al­to­gether. But if the sanc­tions were only against Putin's friends and odi­ous, cor­rupt Krem­lin of­fi­cials, not against Rus­sia as a coun­try, they would have hurt the weak­ened Rus­sian op­po­si­tion less. They could have even strength­ened its hand if the for­eign as­sets of cor­rupt Rus­sian of­fi­cials were frozen; Navalny's in­ves­ti­ga­tions would have been backed up by sto­ries of con­fis­cated il­licit wealth. But in­stead of work­ing to make per­sonal sanc­tions more ef­fec­tive -no high-pro­file as­set freezes have oc­curred, in fact -- Western politi­cians talk about in­creas­ing sec­toral sanc­tions di­rected against the coun­try, not just the regime.

Such mea­sures tend to be sticky. The U.S. kept the 1974 Jack­son-van­ick amend­ment, which re­stricted trade with the Soviet Union and Rus­sia, in force long af­ter Moscow stopped ham­per­ing Jewish em­i­gra­tion, which the law was meant to sup­port. Pun­ish­ment out­lived the trans­gres­sion by decades -- and, through­out the 1990's, it hurt Rus­sia's frag­ile at­tempt to be­come part of the West.

The idea of "pun­ish­ing Rus­sia" is here to stay in U.S. do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. "The Rus­sians" is an ab­stract no­tion rep­re­sented by the im­age of a smirk­ing, bare-chested Putin. A month ago, U.S. leg­is­la­tors who fa­vored heav­ier sanc­tions were still will­ing to wait for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to pro­duce spe­cific re­sults; some­how that no longer ap­pears nec­es­sary. There's prob­a­bly no way to stop the steam­roller, but those call­ing for pun­ish­ment should also keep in mind the im­ages of Navalny be­ing shoved into a po­lice car and the thou­sands pro­tect­ing their heads against rub­ber sticks. That the regime takes out its ha­tred of the West on th­ese peo­ple, and most of Rus­sia looks on -- and much of it even nods along -- is among the side ef­fects of pro­tect­ing democ­racy as the pun­ish­ers un­der­stand it.

This col­umn was first pub­lished by and does not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect the opin­ion of the edi­to­rial board or Bloomberg LP and its own­ers.

Ar­rest is a near cer­tainty for Rus­sian pro­test­ers

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