Will sanctions affect Putin?

by Emrys Westacott

Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is clearly a historically momentous event, already appearing to cause a seismic shift in the geopolitical landscape. What the long-term consequences will be are hard to say. The most obvious losers are the millions of Ukrainians–killed, injured, bereft, and displaced–who are the immediate victims of Putin’s onslaught. The most likely winner will probably be China, on whom Russia is suddenly much more economically dependent due to the sanctions imposed by the West, and who can therefore now expect Putin to dance to whatever tune it whistles.

The heroism of President Zerlensky and all the other Ukrainians willing to risk their lives in resisting the Russian military juggernaut is remarkable and inspiring. But exactly how countries who wish to support Ukraine should respond to what Putin has done is a question to which no-one has an entirely satisfactory answer.

Supplying the resistance with weapons and ammunition will make the war more costly to the Russian military. Confiscating or freezing the foreign assets of Russian oligarchs will “hurt” these people in limited ways (e.g. by messing up their foreign holiday plans). Economic sanctions will inflict considerable damage on the Russian economy, and the effects will be felt across the board, primarily, as is usually the case, by those who are not well off. Cultural sanctions, such as FIFA barring Russia from international soccer competitions, and universities cutting ties with academic institutions in Russia, will communicate to the Russian population the extent to which the country is isolated as a result of the invasion.

On moral grounds, all these measures are justified, even obligatory. But one also has to ask the pragmatic question: how are they supposed to work? That is, how might they lead to an end to the war–an end that consists of something other than a long -term Russian occupation or a Putin-propped puppet government?

We can safely discount the possibility that, faced with undaunted resistance, Putin’s conscience will prevent him from reducing the whole of Ukraine to rubble. The surviving residents of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which Putin bombed into a ruin in 1999, are experts on Putin’s moral sensibilities.

Nor, of course, will Putin be constrained by too many electoral anxieties. Last year the Russian constitution was amended to allow him to serve two further six-year terms should he be re-elected as president in 2024. Given the character of Russian elections and the control exercised by the government over them, including the banning of Putin’s serious critics and restrictions on the media, it seems at present to be a foregone conclusion that he will be re-elected.

Still, the hope behind the support given to the Ukrainian resistance and the sanctions is that they cause Putin to lose support among various constituencies. These include:

  • other military and political leaders who realize that the invasion of Ukraine is a colossal blunder
  • a relatively small group of obscenely rich kleptocrats who stand to lose billions
  • a much larger group of fairly well-off Russians whose expectations and quality of life (including for example, buying foreign goods, travelling abroad, attending foreign schools) will be significantly reduced by the damage done to the Russian economy and the country’s cultural isolation.
  • Russians with family and friends in Ukraine
  • the great majority of ordinary people whose material standard of living and general quality of life will be adversely affected by the war and the sanctions

Putin, by all accounts, is not indifferent to polls concerning his popularity. RIght now his popularity stands at around 70%, lying somewhere between a high of 88% in 2015 and a low of 60% in 2020. But the hoped for path from sanctions, to popular dissatisfaction, to a change in Putin’s policies (or the end of his rule) runs up against a number of roadblocks.

First, Putin appears to wield almost absolute power. The video clip that went viral recently of him cowing and humiliating the Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergey Naryshkin reveals very plainly the extent of his authority.

Second, he is willing to suppress, brutally if necessary, any public criticism. Dissent in Russia requires courage. There have been demonstrations already against the war in several Russian cities, and according to some accounts thousands  protestors have been arrested.

Third, Putin’s government controls the mainstream media’s coverage of the war. This is even more true now that foreign news organizations like the BBC, the CBC, and Bloomberg News have ceased reporting from Russia after their reporters were threatened with arrest if they spread what the Russian government deemed “fake information.” To be sure, some Russians are able to find ways around the censorship, such as using VPNs. But the majority get their view of the world from the state media which, needless to say, constantly reinforces a pro-Putin narrative. So many people, just like in the US, live inside a news bubble that is rarely challenged by alternative accounts of what is happening in the world.

Fourth, that state-sanctioned narrative rests on a foundation of Russian nationalism that runs deep. Nationalism in a complex phenomenon. There are various kinds, and often these are intertwined. In the case of Russia, it involves, among other things, a strong traditional identity bound up with religion and a certain form of life; an impressive list of cultural contributions in science and the arts; a long history of feeling disrespected by Western Europe; the experience of being invaded several times by Western forces (Napoleon, allied opponents of the Bolsheviks, Hitler) and each time emerging victorious; the humiliation felt at the end of the cold war, exacerbated by American triumphalism; anger at the hypocrisy of countries like the US and the UK who condemn Russian foreign policies even though they are often equally culpable (see Iraq: unprovoked and illegal invasion of); and, more recently, a sense of being both excluded and threatened by the expansion Eastwards of NATO and the EU.

I doubt if many ordinary Russians share Putin’s overreaching geopolitical ambitions. But his phony justifications seek to exploit whatever nationalistic sentiments they have. This, after all, is a tactic employed by politicians in just about every country (witness, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, Johnson and other scoundrels). Sadly, it’s a tactic that often seems to work.

Ideally, the measures taken to oppose the invasion of Ukraine will undermine support for Putin. There is obviously a danger, though, that by increasing a sense of victimhood they could inflame nationalistic feelings within Russia. This was a weakness in Biden’s State of the Union address on March 1. He rightly targeted Putin rather than Russia as the agent responsible for the war. But he could have done more to emphasize that opposition to the invasion of Ukraine does not imply any lack of respect for Russia as a nation or for its people. For if the sanctions are to have the desired outcome within Russia–that is, if they are to undermine support for Putin–they need to be accompanied by this message, not understood as expressing contempt.

I have no idea if it is correct, as many are saying, that two decades of unbridled power has led to Putin becoming paranoid and deranged. If so, he exemplifies rather well the memorable portrait of the tyrant drawn by Plato in the Republic. It does appear, though, from his own speeches and from what others have reported, that he has a vision of regathering into a single entity lands which he believes share an ethnic and national identity. Moreover, he appears to think of himself as the individual chosen by history to accomplish this task.

The German philosopher Hegel writes in his lectures on the philosophy of history about “world historical individuals” like Julius Caesar and Napoleon who, whether they are fully aware of it or not, are responsible for historical changes that we eventually recognize as positive developments leading history toward its eventual goal . As someone familiar with Marx (who was steeped in Hegel), Putin would quite possibly be familiar with this notion. If so, that is one more reason to worry. Because Hegel, rather disturbingly, seems to give these world historical individuals license to operate beyond the constraints of conventional morality. “So great a figure,” he writes, “must necessarily trample on many an innocent flower, crushing much that gets in its way.”

But Hegel also claims that these world historical individuals are able to accomplish their aims because they inspire followers who support them not out of fear but from a vague sense that the “hero” in question has history on his side. On this count one suspects that Putin falls short. Let us hope so.