Why Sanctions Against Russia Might Backfire

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto prior to their talks at a residence at the Black
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Finnish President Sauli Niinisto prior to their talks at a residence at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, southern Russia, Friday, Aug. 15, 2014. Putin met with his Finnish counterpart to discuss interaction between the two countries, as well as international problems, first of all, the situation in Ukraine, the Kremlin press service reported. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)

Will Western sanctions against Russia work? It's not clear what that question means, since it isn't obvious what Russia has to do to end them. It doesn't seem very likely that Russia is going to withdraw from Crimea or end its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine.

But even more important is the question of how the sanctions are affecting Russia's domestic political scene. I suggested in early March, when sanctions had been threatened but not yet announced, that they might interfere with Russian President Vladimir Putin's ability to keep his domestic political networks in balance. Those with an internationalist bent would want Russian policy to change. Leading economists like former finance minister Alexei Kudrin have indeed sounded the alarm about Russia's current direction.

But I could not have predicted the specific direction that many of the sanctions took: singling out Putin's key political allies and their businesses for targeting, regardless of whether they are directly involved in Ukrainian events or have any substantial relationship with the West. The thinking seems to be that if the West names and shames Putin's cronies and puts some limited pressure on their business interests, this will convince Putin to change course. But it's not clear how this is supposed to work.

Is the hope that his friends will threaten to boot him out of office if he doesn't shape up? One analyst recently claimed that Putin could be ousted easily, arguing that his replacement might be someone like Kudrin. But this neglects an important element of what holds Putin's networks together: the pact of KGB loyalty. Many of the targeted individuals have past employment in, or suspected connections with, the KGB or its follow-on organization, the FSB (Federal Security Service). Putin, a career KGB officer and former head of the FSB, has repeatedly shown he can use FSB methods and tradecraft to harass his opponents, for example by releasing compromising materials (kompromat) that lead to their prosecution and imprisonment. He would certainly use those skills and connections to punish anyone who defects from his own team. Since many of his associates are reputed billionaires, they can afford to lose quite a bit of money before taking the enormous personal risk of betraying Putin and his KGB friends.

And the sanctions seem almost designed to enrage Putin personally, since they hit his personal networks so closely. The hope can't have been that this would put him in a compromising mood. Is it instead that they will provoke him toward more aggression, leading him to miscalculate and increase his ultimate losses? Russia has already backed off some of its Western food-import counter-sanctions, because Putin's original policy underestimated Russian dependence on specialty items like lactose-free milk, seed stock and salmon produced in Europe.

But it's always dangerous to poke an angry bear. In recent months Putin has begun to encourage a conspiracy-mongering form of anti-Western nationalism. It's impossible to know whether he and his cronies actually believe this neo-Eurasianist ideology. But neo-Eurasian arguments fill state-sponsored Russian media, and variations of it are seeping into the writings of even mainstream diplomatic analysts in Moscow. The West is blamed for denigrating Russia throughout history as backwards and wrong-headed, denying Russia its rightful place simply because its culture is different from Europe's. In the 1990s, the story goes, the West tried to transform Russia in its own image, denying Russia's separate identity and stealing its resources. Neo-Eurasianism rejects Western values of democracy, liberal tolerance, and individual rights. It argues instead for the superiority of a uniquely Russian communal and statist culture.

Ukraine matters, from this point of view, because Kiev was the medieval birthplace of Russia's unique civilization, and now Ukraine's eastern regions form a cultural buffer against the encroaching and degenerate West. Of course the West wants to stop Putin--his actions are rolling back Western influence. The sanctions bolster Eurasianist claims that the West has always persecuted Russia. They can be portrayed as another feeble attempt to demonstrate Western superiority.

Rather than pushing Putin toward accommodation, his cronies might push him toward nationalist extremism, to ensure their own continuing relevance in this new environment that Putin himself unleashed. The tilt toward extremism is already underway. Some versions of Eurasianism recognize that Russia is a multi-ethnic state, and argue that values-based nationalism is compatible with many religious traditions. But state-sponsored analysts increasingly claim that the culture of the Russian state should be based on the values of its majority Russian ethnic population. This theme was included in the draft version of a Kremlin document published by the Russian press in April, which proposed the establishment of an official state culture based on ethnic Russian values. (The document pointed out that ethnic Russians form 80% of the population of the Russian Federation.) This followed Putin's speech to the Russian parliament in March, where ethnic Russian phrasing dominated his analysis and he declared Crimea a "primordial" part of Russian territory. It's a short step from calls for Russian ethnic cultural dominance to the anti-Semitic lecture reportedly given at the state-sponsored Seliger youth camp a few weeks ago by a professor from Moscow's State Institute of International Relations. Russia is headed in a dangerous direction.

The lesson from the past decade around the world is that the United States and its allies cannot control the internal politics of foreign countries. When they try, they often end up with a worse situation than they faced originally. If ugly ethnic nationalism becomes the ideology of the day in Russia, the West might find itself longing for the stability of the Cold War era. Meanwhile, Western sanctions against Putin's cronies might be cementing a new bond between powerful FSB representatives, and anti-Western ethnic nationalists.