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.
What Putin really wants
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.