Punishing Putin Just Makes Him Stronger

Tougher sanctions will only make him double down on antagonizing the West.

During Russian protests against the raised retirement age, a fake skeleton is seated next to a sign that says, "Waited for the pension."
"Waited for the pension." (Anton Vaganov / Reuters)

For Vladimir Putin, winter is coming. The “Crimea effect” that saw his approval ratings rocket after he annexed a part of neighboring Ukraine in 2014 is certainly over, and the popularity boost he expected after Russia hosted the World Cup never really materialized. Instead, Russian politics are currently dominated by a slate of controversial pension reforms introduced by Putin’s government in response to a looming budget crisis. The proposed change, which would raise the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and from 55 to 63 for women, was deeply unpopular. In some parts of the country, average life expectancy is below the new pension ages. According to the Levada Center, Russia’s most reliable polling agency, 89 percent of Russians oppose the reform and only 8 percent support it. More than three million people signed a petition against the measures, as tens of thousands have joined protests organized by the usually torpid Communist Party in the past month.

After staying quiet on the reform for weeks, Putin, in a singularly unconvincing response, blamed his government, and said he himself wasn’t happy with the measures. But no one seems to be buying it. Even state polling agency VTsIOM said public trust in him has plummeted to 37 percent. The problem for Putin is that he is caught in a trap largely of his own making. His failure to diversify the economy in the times of plenty during the 2000s and his neglect of the rule of law—crucial for both foreign investment and domestic entrepreneurship—as well as the impact of his adventurism abroad all leave Russia poorly positioned to respond to new pressures.

Putin may make some concessions on the pensions issue. But backing down too far will have serious fiscal consequences, as a smaller proportion of workers support a growing share of pensioners. Will he cut defense spending further, or take a chance on reducing subsidies to restive Chechnya? Impose a windfall tax on big business? The reality, which he surely knows, is that there is no “spare money” and the desperate quest for solutions is only opening divisions in the regime.

From Washington’s perspective, now seems like the right time to pressure Putin to modify his behavior. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on August 21, Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell defined the objective of U.S. policy toward Russia as being “to degrade Vladimir Putin’s ability to conduct aggression by imposing costs on the Russian state and the oligarchy that sustains it.” Likewise, Marshall Billingslea, the assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Treasury Department, said that his agency “has been given a straightforward mandate to combat Russian aggression at every turn” through sanctions. As if on cue: The Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, awaiting debate in the Senate, would deliver “crushing” new sanctions on investments in Russian energy projects, banks, and sovereign debt.

The logic at work here is understandable: More pressure on the economy means harder times for both ordinary Russians and Putin’s cronies. Harder times, in turn, could force Putin to rein in his aggressive geopolitical campaign to assert Russia’s role as a great power, both because the price is too high and because he needs Western investment, capital, and technology. And if he doesn’t scale back? Pressure will build, and even if he survives politically, he’ll be too busy dealing with a restive population to make mischief around the world.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it gets Russia backwards: Squeezing Russia gives Putin an excuse to be Putin, not a reason to change.

Consider Mitchell’s mention of “the oligarchy that sustains” the Kremlin—it’s actually the other way around: You can be rich and powerful today, but if you cross Putin or his henchmen, all that disappears. (In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being the richest man in Russia to a convict in a labor camp when he injudiciously involved himself in politics. In 2016, then-finance minister Alexei Ulyukaev was framed and convicted when he fell afoul of Putin’s longtime crony Igor Sechin.) And when times get tough and Western financial havens are denied to the rich (something happening now), they must become all the more ostentatiously loyal, as their perks and positions come to depend all the more directly on Putin’s favor. Times of crisis for Russia’s mega-rich only make Putin stronger.

If Washington truly believes that a new wave of protest in Russia means that the regime is about to buckle, it misunderstands the mood of the country. Serious protests, like the ones that followed Putin’s reelection in 2012, break out in Russia when times seem good and change feels possible.* When things are hard and the regime intransigent, barring total collapse—a nightmare scenario almost beyond possibility—most people focus on the demands of daily life rather than on politics. Sure, Russians are complaining about the proposed pension reforms, but this is nothing compared to the protests the regime faced down in 2011 and 2012, when people could still believe that maybe their rallies and marches might make a real difference.

Besides: Who will they blame for their day-to-day troubles? Paradoxically, the World Cup—an event that left many visitors with a much more positive image of Russia—worked both ways. Accustomed to a steady diet of alarmist xenophobia on television (which is controlled almost entirely by the government), Russians had a chance to see foreigners as people just like them. Approval of the United States rose from 20 percent in May to 42 percent in July.

But this bump won’t last. Now that Putin’s having a harder time offering his people a good life fueled by a buoyant economy, he’ll rely ever more on a legitimating narrative based on a vision of a hostile world opposed to Russian values and sovereignty. Sanctions are, in many ways, his alibi—he can blame everything on the West, whatever the truth of the matter. Protests can be spun as Western-inspired subversion, and economic hardships painted as made in Washington. Tough times will be used to justify tough measures, and enough Russians will probably be willing to accept the Kremlin’s line.

In Moscow last week, one could feel the people preparing for a long, hard geopolitical winter—one they blamed the West for. Short of what would feel like surrender, there’s little real sense of what Russia can do to induce the West to lift sanctions. After all, what the West wants, the Kremlin is not willing or able to concede. Putin can’t withdraw from Crimea—most Russians see it as rightfully theirs—and can’t pull out of the Donbass or Syria without suffering crippling political damage. And ending his campaign of trolling and needling the West, he seems to feel, would be giving up one of his few levers.

Where does this leave a West looking for some traction on the Kremlin? Sanctions certainly have their place, but there are probably stronger options. Threatening to give Ukraine more economic aid next time Putin unleashes his trolls and hackers, for example, might actually inflict some pain on him, while sparing ordinary Russians.

Russians are not about to rise up against Putin, and the system is not going to collapse. There is a behind-the-scenes struggle under way between pragmatists and nationalist ideologues—not so much to influence Putin, but rather to shape the regime that will follow him. Piling on the pressure now may feel righteous and may satisfy a desire to “punish” the Kremlin for everything from the attempted Skripal assassination in Britain to continued meddling in U.S. politics. Yet the tragic irony is that it hardens Putin’s position and plays to the nationalists, making positive long-term progress all the less likely.

* This piece originally misstated the year Putin was reelected as 2011.