Staunton, May 4 – One of the implicit purposes of Western sanctions was to divide Russian elites in order to bring pressure on Vladimir Putin to change course. So far, the Kremlin leader has limited that outcome by playing up anti-Western feelings and promoting Russian patriotism.
But if Western sanctions have not had the desired impact in that regard, Aleksandr Baunov says in an essay for the Carnegie Moscow Center, Russian counter-sanctions or more precisely the debates about what they should look like or even whether they should be imposed very much have at least within the Duma (carnegie.ru/commentary/76198).
The senior editor at the Center says that when the West introduced sanctions on Russia, it “counted on a sharpening of the domestic struggle in Russia, imagining that the oligarchs would put pressure on Putin. In fact, the domestic struggle after the American sanctions sharpened but not at all in the way that [US] senators imagined.”
Instead, it “took place not in the form of the pressure of oligarchs and officials on the throne but rather in the form of pressure by competing fragments of the disintegrating vertical on one another, in particular by the Duma which under Vyacheslav Volodin is seeking to become an independent center of power” against “even the Presidential Administration.”
Being well-aware that the Russian government is no used to “leaving any hit without a response,” Baunov says, “the Duma attempted in rapid order to occupy a position which … [in effect] transformed it into the general staff of the sanctions war” on the Russian side, thus challenging the government, the foreign ministry, and the Kremlin itself.
Under existing rules, the Duma can consider a draft bill initially without the approval of the Presidential Administration, although it typically happens that the latter signals via the media very quickly whether it will or won’t back any particular measure, the Moscow journalist says. But in putting out a bill, the Duma can get out ahead of public and more elite opinion.
That means that others have to respond or play catch up, something that gives Volodin and his structure additional weight in the halls of power, Baunov says. And that may be especially true when the Duma moves from its traditional domestic focus to questions of foreign policy.
The Duma proposal quickly generated opposition from those around Kudrin and Kiriyenko. But it also attracted support and helped delineate the cleavages in the Russian elite. “For the radically inclined, the bill looked too defensive … and for those who passively support the government’s fight for a just world order, it came too close to affecting their vital interests.”
Most Russians and many abroad view the Russian power vertical as a unified whole, but it includes a congeries of various interests that fight among themselves. On the question of counter-sanctions, “the Russian administrative class has begun to fall apart in a customary way into supporters of mobilization development and globalist-pragmatists.”
According to Baunov, “sanctions of course harm Russian companies but within the political elite they have become if not a catalyzer for a new type of political pressure on the authorities and fuel then at least fuel for the already existing struggle connected with the inevitable beginning of a transit” to a new configuration of power.
That doesn’t guarantee victory for any one side; but it shows that there is real competition and that sanction by provoking counter-sanctions can exacerbate the situation.