Staunton, March 23 – Western countries imposed sanctions on Russia following Vladimir Putin’s violation of international law in annexing Ukraine’s Crimea and creating an anti-Kyiv insurgency in the Donbass on the assumption that such sanctions would impose costs high enough to force the Kremlin to change course.
To the extent that some of the sanctions affected the Russian population as a whole, however, the logic behind them was faulty. Any suffering of the Russians a whole would have much less impact on the authoritarian Putin regime than it would have in a democracy; and indeed, given the Kremlin’s control of the media, that suffering could be blamed on the West.
That meant the most effective sanctions would be those that hit Putin’s circle. If they suffered enough, either by not being able to travel or by not being able to engage in their pursuit of wealth, their attitudes could potentially have a powerful impact on Putin’s decision. Indeed, again at least in principle, it could force Putin to conform to international law.
But now Putin has found a way to limit the impact of the latter kind of sanctions even as he has lied about and ignored the impact of others: he has pushed through a measure in the Russian parliament that will mean that those suffering personal sanctions from the West will not have to pay Russian taxes while those sanctions are in place.
In a more open political system, such blatant taking care of friends could in itself impose a high political cost. But the Putin regime is presenting this as a simple matter of justice in which Moscow is simply helping out those the West wants to punish. (For a discussion of this measure, see echo.msk.ru/blog/ganapolsky/1949104-echo/).
This latest Putin move does not mean that sanctions should be ended. Instead, it means that they must be extended to hurt Putin and his entourage more directly. That will require both that the West decide to go after the wealth these Russians have sent abroad and other measures like cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial settlements system.
And it will require something else: Western governments which support sanctions and which have the ability to broadcast into the Russian Federation need to step up their efforts to communicate the way that Putin is protecting his friends but not the Russian people by his actions.
Western governments have always maintained the Russian people are not the enemy and that their problems are with the Putin regime. Now is the time to demonstrate that not only by further actions against the Russian plutocracy but also by communicating to the Russian people that it is their own government and not the West that is responsible for the problems they face.