The sanctions on Russia seem to be working. The sanctions, coupled with large victories by pro-Western parties in 2014 Ukrainian parliamentary elections, may contribute to a sense that matters are heading in the right direction for the U.S.
Why then did Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov say that the sanctions will fail? Partly, of course, he’s saving face. But he has a point. Politically, Putin is the strongest man in Russia. While the Russian oligarchs have immense power, they’re still not as strong as Putin. And even though Russian billionaires are steadily losing money, the reality is that Putin’s inner circle can probably weather the crisis, cossetted as they are by his influence. They’re wagering that the sanctions coalition and public approval for it will fracture before their fortunes decline.
So if the oligarchs can’t put enough pressure on Putin to leave Ukraine, what does that mean for Russia? The effects of economic sanctions are passed off to local consumers. The Russian ruble is at its lowest value since 1998. Its central bank has spent almost all of its cash reserves to keep the ruble afloat and may soon raise interest rates, further damaging an economy that’s been going nowhere for a while. Inflation is on the rise. Capital flight reached $151.1 billion by the end of 2014. The Russian economy hasn’t looked any healthier in 2015.
In a fully functioning democracy, the people, feeling the economic pressure, would move to replace their leaders with ones more willing to deal with the West. Good luck in Russia. First, in Russia elections are not meaningful. There is no alternation of power. Second, Putin possesses an extraordinary ability to transmit a siege mentality through his control of the Russian media, which presents a unified image of the spiteful and jealous West as perpetrators of great injustices against a Russia that is simply assuming its rightful place. Nothing illustrates this better than how differently the downing of flight MH17 is perceived in Russia from the rest of the world. Because of his almost total control of the media, Putin can use the existence of the sanctions to distract from their effects, rallying the people against the “oppressive” West.
Another problem with the sanctions is that they are an attempt to force Putin to assume a position he cannot accept: that of Russia as a secondary nation. Although his speech in March 2014 in which he defended Russia’s involvement in Crimea was mainly a public-relations stunt designed to justify Russia’s actions, it demonstrated a worldview that is incompatible with the West. Through a flawed interpretation of history, Putin sincerely believes that Russia, after feasting at the main banquet, has been asked back to the children’s table.
Sanctions are a blunt weapon, whose effects are often hard to measure or to translate into political gains. However, there is no real alternative. Harsher sanctions could be imposed, but there is only so much to sanction, and cooperating with some of the European nations, whose economies are closer tied to Russia, has been difficult. Also, while isolating Russia economically and politically is the goal, Russia still has a role to play internationally. Sanctioning Putin directly would hamper attempts to work with him, further fuel his narrative of Russia as victim, and also could push him to take drastic action. The more options are taken away from a cornered man, the more likely it is that he will act irrationally. The only other option, military action, is out of the question.
So where does this leave us? The sanctions may have some significant negative side effects for long term U.S.-Russian relations, but they are also the only feasible way for the United States to defend its interests. Doing nothing would have a detrimental, trend-setting effect. Isolating Putin completely would probably create even greater problems. In the end, the United States must do two things. First, the West should try to do more to help Ukraine economically, to give it more stability. Of course, the internal stability of Ukraine depends very much on Ukraine. Ukraine is not the fifty-first state. It’s not even a member of the EU or NATO. Still, the U.S. can attach strings to its aid, such as necessitating anti-corruption measures, making use of the surge in pro-Western feeling in Western Ukraine. Second, the United States must continue to support NGOs in Russia and work to counteract Putin’s anti-Western rhetoric by introducing media of its own into Russia. Provoking the ire of the Russian people against Putin would be a huge coup for the West.
Simon Hoellerbauer is a research assistant intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College.