After it invaded Ukraine, Russia became the most heavily sanctioned country in the world. This has provoked a new wave of discussion about the effectiveness of sanctions as a tool of political influence. Many commenters have pointed out that sanctions rarely achieve their goals, and, as Daniel W. Drezner points out, the sanctions currently imposed on Russia don’t even have a clear goal behind them. That undermines their coercive bargaining power because their recipients in Russia don’t even know what they should do to lift them.
Despite Western politicians’ initial promises that sanctions are not intended to hurt ordinary people, many of them actually treat Russian society as a monolith. Being directed by a lack of understanding of Russia and a desire for virtue signaling often leads to counterproductive actions that do not hurt the Russian military machine. Ineffective sanctions only cause Russian people to rally round the flag and lead to fatigue from sanctions and protests against them in European societies.
In what follows, I will try, drawing on the opinions of Russian social scientists, to paint a more complicated picture of Russian society and the tensions that exist inside it in order to give practical recommendations regarding the actions that could be taken to amplify these tensions instead of smoothing them and pushing the population towards unity with the regime. The divisive effect of some actions taken against Russia could be easily overcome and, ultimately, be beneficial for the societies that will choose solidarity with ordinary Russians against Putin.
In a debate with Russian political scientist Alexander Kynev, philosopher and the editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper Novaya Gazeta Europe Kirill Martynov stated that any sanctions are good because their purpose is to destabilize the Russian economy, making it impossible for the country to continue its military actions. Anyone staying in Russia pays taxes and in this way finances the war, so it is unimportant what costs ordinary Russians bear since they are not the ones who are being bombed right now. They should take their share of the responsibility for it anyway, Martynov argues, because they allowed the authoritarian militaristic regime of Vladimir Putin to exist in the first place.
In response, Kynev called him a propagandist and said that all of this was nonsense because most of the sanctions imposed on Russia are doing nothing to stop the war. Many mostly hurt innocent people, provoking a new humanitarian catastrophe that will have long-lasting consequences. For example, cutting off Visa and Mastercard has almost no influence on the Russian military complex or even the disintegration of the Russian economy because they are important for transactions between individuals, not companies. It is the NGO sector, oppositional media, and especially people fleeing the regime who were hurt the most by this. Russian charity organizations report losing more than half of their funding, most of which is because people are unable to transfer funds abroad or because they used Google Pay and Apple Pay for transactions. Imposing sanctions that target only key military industries and warmongering oligarchs and officials is not that hard, Kynev argued, it just takes some work and political will. Western politicians don’t know what to do with Russia and just take any action – usually the easiest one – to show that they are doing something to their electorate.
Russia’s most famous and beloved political scientist and public commenter Ekaterina Schulman thinks that the so-called “special military operation” is indeed not a war in the imagination of the Russian ruling elite because it serves domestic purposes. Putin saw the neighboring authoritarian regimes of Belarus and Kazakhstan go through political crises that were resolved only with his help, and he doesn’t have a powerful neighbor willing to come to rescue him if anything like this happens. The regime’s support and trust in the president have been declining since 2016. According to electoral mathematicians Alexander Borgens and Sergey Shpilkin, who cleared the electoral statistics from anomalies that signified electoral fraud, Putin’s United Russia got almost the same number of votes during the last elections as the Communist Party, so it is getting extremely hard to falsify the elections to get the constitutional majority in the State Duma. Millennial and Gen-Z (the irony of the name!) Russians get most of their information from the Internet, which the government doesn’t know how to fully control. They don’t share the state’s conservative, isolationist values. After Covid-19, the previously growing population of Russia decreased by more than a million people, and these generations started to outweigh the loyal seniors that comprise the core of Putin’s support group and who usually determine election results because they vote in higher numbers. Attacking Ukraine and provoking Western sanctions is indeed the last opportunity for Putin to preserve his power because it disconnects Russia from the rest of the world, destroying the young Russians’ future in an internationally connected world and leaving them with the only way of survival – serving the state.
Most of the professional Russian soldiers come from the rural areas of the country’s poorest regions since there are no jobs and the only option for them in life is military service, which pays much more than the average salary there. Further impoverishment of Russian citizens will only add an incentive for them to go to the war, which they are currently still very reluctant to fight. That is why the support for the war declines with income level– poor people will be hit first by the economic storm that’s coming. However, the destruction of a civil, non-state economy unrelated to the military – that Putin’s state has been carrying on for decades keeping itself together with affiliated siloviki as the main employer – would leave them no other option but to work for the state or go to the military. It is worth remembering that starving, disconnected individuals don’t make good revolutionaries.
If sanctions are aimed to influence the behavior of the regime and not just create a social disaster contained behind an iron curtain, as in the cases of North Korea, Iran, Cuba, or Venezuela – which will definitely spread to the whole post-Soviet space because many neighboring countries depend on Russian logistics –, they should aim to change the balance of power in it, not amplify the existing one. They should, if not empower, then at least hurt the pacifist party less than the pro-war one so that the former should proportionally grow stronger while the latter gets weaker. It means that those who impose them should better understand the political situation inside the country they target.
Paradoxically, as another prominent Russian political scientist Kirill Rogov points out, sanctions mainly hurt pro-Western Russian elites because it is easier to do so since their money is kept in the West. Economist Andrey Yakovlev notes that they mainly lost the struggle for power a long time ago and used the West as a safe harbor to protect their possessions from Putin and keep a degree of independence. In the Russian context, they constitute a counter-elite to the hegemonic class that Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ischenko, following Hungarian sociologist Iván Szelényi, describes as “political capitalists.” If the former’s advantage is rooted in technological innovations or a particularly cheap labor force, the latter’s main competitive advantage is derived from selective benefits from the state. Political capitalists suppressed the development of “regular” capitalists throughout the short history of the Russian Federation because they threatened their hegemony. Sanctioning Russian “regular” capitalists without providing a clear way to get their property back through opposition to the war – for example, through spending their Russian assets on anti-military actions to lift sanctions on their Western assets – just makes them dependent on the regime, leading to its consolidation while effective anti-war policy should stimulate its disintegration and play on inner conflicts. Instead, Russian propaganda already welcomes this “nationalization of the elites”. The Kremlin has been trying to implement this process since at least since 2013, prohibiting officials from owning property abroad (obviously unsuccessfully) – and now the West is helping it along.
The most ridiculous part of this is Western companies silently leaving their assets in Russia, sometimes giving them up for a symbolic price, like the Renault plant sold for 1 ruble to the Moscow government. Activists from all over the world flood social networks with criticism of corporations still working in Russia. Many of these companies indeed leave, saying how incredibly concerned they are with the invasion and that they condemn it. But only to Western audiences. None of them, however, has yet used their influence, audience, and contacts in Russia to condemn the invasion to the Russian people. Before Russian audiences, most of them only vaguely stated that they suspended their work in Russia due to some mysterious circumstances and can’t wait to come back. Russian businessmen – such as oilman and coalman Aleksandr Govor who bought McDonald’s Russian assets or Putin’s self-proclaimed “best friend” rapper Timati, who bought Starbucks’ and whose family’s wealth presumably also comes from the oil industry – gladly buy whole corporations on the cheap, while Western companies announce their departure “for good”, but nevertheless, reserve the right to buy the assets back if the situation changes. New owners try to keep everything unchanged, not firing any workers and keeping them at least part-time, so people would think that the war does not influence them, but of course they would gladly give away their workers for mobilization.
On its English-Language Instagram page, Ikea wrote:
“The devastating war in Ukraine is a human tragedy, and our deepest empathy and concerns are with the millions of people impacted. The war has had a huge human impact already. It is also resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions. For all of these reasons, the company groups have decided to temporarily pause IKEA operations in Russia.
- Inter IKEA Group has taken the decision to pause all export and import in and out of Russia and Belarus.
- Inter IKEA Group has taken the decision to pause all IKEA Industry production operations in Russia. This also means that all deliveries from all sub-suppliers to these unites are paused.
- Ingka Group has taken the decision to pause all IKEA Retail operations in Russia, while the shopping centre Mega, will continue to be open to ensure that the many people in Russia have access to their daily needs and essentials such as food, groceries and pharmacies.”
On its Russian-language Instagram page, Ikea posted:
“Dear customers! Due to the current situation, IKEA is forced to suspend sales in stores, on its online store, and in IKEA Studios in Russia from March 4, 2022. You will find information about the maintenance of already made purchases and the services provided on the ikea.ru website in the near future.”
A small group of Russian activists tried to pressure foreign companies to speak up against the war in Russia, but they didn’t have any success or get much attention. International companies indeed could greatly influence the course of the war. They have resources to legally protect their employees from prosecution for protesting, pay out their fines or save them from mobilization. They also have huge networks of suppliers and customers that could be used for spreading alternative information about the war instead of state propaganda. Furthermore, they could help deported Ukrainians get out of Russia. For internet companies such as Spotify, YouTube Premium, Canva, or Pixabay, it would cost nothing to stay in Russia showing banners and playing ads condemning the invasion to the Russian audience, but they chose to leave instead.
There are many other things Western companies could do. However, they decided to “suspend their activities,” hoping the war would be over soon, and when it dragged on, they just left their assets worth millions of dollars to Russian oligarchs. That is the worst strategy possible because it lets the government put the blame for the deficit on the West since Russia did nothing against the Western businesses, and they chose to leave themselves, which means that they are to be blamed for shortages of goods. What they should have been doing instead was to cling to the Russian market till the end, making the government force them out for violation of the new oppressive laws and overburdening Russian courts with paperwork. That would make the government take the political blame for the decreasing quality of life, so in most cases, it is trying to avoid it. For example, YouTube, Wikipedia, and Google, being the main sources of alternative information about the war, have been accused of violations of Russian censorship laws countless times already but have not been banned because they are too important for the everyday lives of ordinary Russians. Besides, by refusing to go quietly into the night, these companies would not have to leave the infrastructure intact for Putin-friendly Russian elites to take. Finally, banning them would create grounds for lawsuits over the assets lost by these companies in Russia in the future.
Excluding Russia from international organizations such as the Council of Europe is no better. Previously, Russian citizens at least had almost illusionary protection from their state through the European Court of Human Rights. At least, after being detained at protests, they could get compensation from the Russian state in the distant future. Now they lost even that, while Russian exclusion from this organization did absolutely nothing for the ceasefire. Russian presence in the Council could not influence its work on the protection of human rights in Europe, while its absence there prevents the international protection of human rights in Russia.
At the same time, the assets of warmongering elites are kept in Russia, protected from Western bureaucrats. As Rogov points out, siloviki always had problems legalizing their capital abroad. They are often even restricted from leaving the country. What’s most important is that most of their money comes from selling natural resources. They are completely dependent on the regime and owe everything to Putin. In an ideal situation, it is they who should have been hurt by sanctions the most, so it would become impossible for them to redistribute oil rents and buy loyalty. However, in the real world, Europe is still sending them more money than to Ukraine, and much more than all the foreign companies pay Russia in taxes together. What’s worse, dozens of Russian weapons tycoons have faced no Western sanctions. Some Western companies even help Russia circumvent sanctions to produce weapons – for example, the Czech manufacturer TDZ Turn has been serving their customers in Russia through a proxy company KR Prom since 2014 and continues to do so even though their products are used in Russia’s key ballistic missiles plant Krasmash.
The only way to hurt this elite group is to cut Russian hydrocarbons export because this is what lets Putin’s regime buy the loyalty of all the interest groups in Russia and outside of it. While the European Union is trying hard, the process is slow, which gives Russia time to adapt and find new customers or ways to circumvent the restrictions. Unfortunately, this solution has its own downside. Sanctioning of Russian oil and gas forces up their prices, so the losses in export volumes are evened out – if not exceeded – by the growing prices. To mitigate this growth right now and substitute the Russian import, Europe could resort to the revival of its nuclear plants and coal mines or permit the extraction of shale oil and gas, but in the long run, it will of course have to transit to renewable energy in order to not depend on petroleum autocracies in the future.
Sanctions should not as much punish loyalty as they should stimulate dissent. Many Russian business people relocated their enterprises to other countries but still said nothing about the war. Those who depend on foreign customers can be easily influenced to speak up and invest in anti-war activities through public criticism and the creation of such lists as the Yale list of companies still operating in Russia. For example, Ukrainian activists created a list of Russian venture investors’ public positions regarding the war. Such lists could be used to pressure them to speak up against the war and donate to Russian anti-war organizations, most of which are struggling to find funding.
Maria Pevchikh, the head of the investigation department of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, proposed a similar tactic. Instead of punishing all Russians indiscriminately, she suggests personal sanctions against warmongering individuals, starting with those 6,000 war enablers on their list. But the most important part is that a way to lift these sanctions should be provided for them in case they confront the war in any way. This is much better than keeping the sanctions and still providing the oligarchs with immense “allowances”.
A society has to heal and change itself, and no other society can do it for it. Russian society – to the extent that it exists – can be the anti-Putinist coalition’s most important ally during this war and after that. At some point, someone will have to make peace and restore the relationships destroyed in this conflict. However, for this ally to act, it needs to feel support rather than animosity, it should have space for action and a way for dissent. Creating this space may be much more productive than trying to destroy the room for maneuvering for Russian society by indiscriminately sanctioning it. In the end, Ukraine’s military victory is not certain, and the international occupation of Russia similar to the occupation of Germany after WWII is definitely off the table, so the Russian people will have to be the ones denazifying Russia in any case. Putin wants to disconnect the Russian people from the world. The world needs to find a way instead to reintegrate them and disconnect them from Putin.
As Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at the University of California, points out before the war, Russian society was going through a big transformation that would make it impossible for the regime to govern with the methods it used to. This transformation should have led Putin’s government to a major crisis, provoking the democratization of Russia and neighboring authoritarian countries that also faced their crises of legitimacy. The growing need to falsify elections and use brute force rather than hegemony slowly made it obvious that Putin and Lukashenko did not represent their people anymore. Putin found a way out of this predicament by externalization of the domestic civil conflict, turning it into an international one, as he did a lot of times throughout his dictatorial career.
Unlike Triesman who believes that the deterioration of the regime provoked by the unsuccessful war might incentivize Putin to transfer power, Russia’s most prominent political scientist Grigory Golosov thinks that the opposite might also be true, and the elite would need him as a veto player even more if every fraction would feel threatened by the possible collapse of the regime foretold by Triesman. Any actions concerning Russia should take this into account and not let Putin consolidate the regime. They should amplify the tensions that have been growing in the country before punishing those who profit from the war and giving an incentive for the rest to stop it, even if it sometimes means supporting ex-propagandists like Marina Ovsyannikova, corrupt politicians like Ilya Ponomaryov, nationalists like Alexey Navalny or billionaires who once collaborated with the regime for years like Roman Abramovich.
If treated properly, Russian society, for all its weaknesses, can become a major ally in the struggle against the Russian state. Stopping Putin would require international solidarity that includes the Russian people in the struggle against him.
Alex Finiarel writes on the science and popular science activity at the intersection of political analysis, philosophy, democracy studies, postcolonial studies, and queer studies.