Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine Western countries have imposed devastating sanctions on Russia. This blog argues that the current sanctions-regime help boost Kremlin-propaganda, ultimately diminishing the possibility that sanctions will procure a popular uprising or help stop the war. Western states and private organisations must avoid cultural and academic sanctions against Russians and explore ways of helping and influencing Russian civil society while comprehensive sanctions against Kremlin-linked entities are in place.
Many international observers point to domestic dynamics in Russia as crucial for the outcome of the war and suggest that sanctions might help provoke a popular uprising against the Kremlin. Yet recent opinion polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Russians support Putin and the war in Ukraine. These results should of course be analysed with great caution. Conducting polls and making them reflect the true composition of opinions in a country that is steamrolling into a full-fledged dictatorship has been a tricky business before the war, and is today practically impossible. National governmental surveys pose biased questions and in independent surveys people may be afraid to express their true opinions, not to mention that many people are simply not aware of what is actually going on in Ukraine because of state-propaganda and censorship. Nevertheless, the number of Russians supporting this war should not be underestimated.
The war, at least as “sold” and narrated to the Russian people, appears to be decently popular, and reasons for this needs to be thoroughly analysed. The multi-faceted and complex sanctions now spanning far beyond governmental structures are expected to destabilise the Russian economy and heighten domestic discontent. While they undoubtedly have an economic effect, domestic discontent might bring more harm than good, since it is currently developing against the West and not the Russian regime. In this context, the success of sanctions is more about minds than money.
Sanctions: A Double-edged Sword
Literature on sanctions often distinguishes between those targeted against individuals, including travel-bans and asset-freezes, and comprehensive sanctions against entire economic sectors such as energy-industries. In the spectrum of sanctions however, one can also find diplomatic sanctions with the expulsion of diplomats, and privately orchestrated sanctions, where companies, organisations and institutions drop activities with Russian counterparts. All in all, the “normal population” has become the most frequent “collateral damage” of sanctions, taking on the burden for the decisions of their governments.
It is important to understand that the sanctions instrument is a double-edged sword that can provoke developments completely contrary to what the imposer of the sanctions intended. While economic misery can convert into an uprising against the regime, it can also inflame anti-Western sentiment and give Putin the support he needs to continue the war despite the plummeting economy. In other words, sanctions can make people less supportive of Putin and his policies in the short term, but at the same time they can reinforce people’s support for his greater mission: To prevent any more countries in getting into the West’s ‘Russia-hating orbit’.
According to traditional ‘punishment theory’, the more comprehensive the sanctions to the target country, the more likely they will turn into domestic political pressure since citizens will try to make the regime comply with external demands. However, scholars focusing on psychological mechanisms and discourses stress that comprehensive sanctions can also trigger a so-called ‘rally‐round‐the‐flag effect’ ultimately strengthening the incumbent government instead of weakening it – because sanctions can be used to narrate an external threat and thereby rally domestic support. In line with such research, Grauvogel & von Soest point out that sanctions against authoritarian regimes with legitimacy claims and easy access to repressive measures tend to reinforce them. While sanctions might have a clear-cut economic impact it is more double-sided and doubtful whether they can help end the war.
Two Things Putin Fears: A Revolutionary Population… and the Patriotic Public
Analysing the current situation in Russia, Putin seems to enjoy exactly that: claims to legitimacy and easy access to repressive measures. Putin enjoys public support, anti-war demonstrations are scattered before they can even take place, free media has been shut down, and the repression apparatus against protesters is just gathering pace. Paradoxically, indications are emerging of a rally-round-the-flag-effect, similar to the so-called “Crimean effect”. For example, demonstrations against anti-Russia discrimination and ‘russophobia’ are taking place all over Europe – including in Germany.
Sanctions and propaganda combined with repressive measures seem to have rallied even Russians who were against the invasion around Putin. While he might fear that sanctions could procure a revolutionary population, signs of such development are diminishing. According to the Russian critical media Faridaily by Farida Rustamova, the Russian citizenry has been overheated by propaganda, which means that Putin has created his own worst enemy should he decide to halt the military aggression and give into sanctions. If Putin should choose to stop the invasion at the territory of Donbas for example, the ‘patriotic public’ may be very disappointed. As Faridaily puts it: “People will ask questions: What was this for? Kyiv hasn’t been taken, the majority of the sanctions haven’t been lifted, living under them [sanctions] is bad. Why put up with all this?”
Putin can disappoint either the critical public by continuing the ‘special military operation’ and circumvent sanctions; or disappoint the patriotic public by giving in to sanctions and stop the war. Currently no lost money can get Putin to do the latter. Unless the number of critical minded citizens is increased, or Putin himself find a way to legitimise ending the war halfway towards ‘victory’ against ‘Russophobia’ and ‘Nazism’, he will continue to choose the first option until the war is won or lost by force. It seems the short-term effect of the propaganda on the continuation of the war, alters or at least mediates the long-term economic effect of sanctions on the discontinuation of it.
Sanctions against Russia vs. Sanctions against Russians
To increase the possibilities of reversing the rally-round-the-flag-effect, it is necessary to distinguish between sanctions against Kremlin-linked entities (both individuals and industries) and sanctions against the Russian people. Replacing the latter with efforts to help and positively influence Russian civil society might be what is necessary to make government targeted sanctions work. In fact, some sanctions literature shows that sanctions are most effective when simultaneously aiding civil society from below.
On the governmental level, both targeted sanctions against Kremlin-linked individuals and comprehensive sanctions against Russian economic sectors are in place (for list of sanctions see link). The speed of their imposition and the volume of their economic impact probably surprised Putin, but he still has not changed his mind about conducting war in Ukraine, nor have sanctions provoked major changes in attitudes among oligarchs or others in the Russian elite. By exploiting loopholes and strengthening economic ties with more friendly countries like China and India, Putin seeks to reduce the economic impact of Western sanctions instead of giving in to them. It is much harder to make a country give in to sanctions when alternative trade routes are available. Some international observers even fear that Western sanctions might push authoritarian regimes closer together ultimately making them more resilient to external pressure. We must also not forget that Russia has essentially been preparing for this sort of punishment for the last 8 years, since the first comprehensive sanctions were introduced.
Apart from governmental sanctions, private companies and organisations have cut ties with Russia to emphasise support for Ukraine. Some companies have withdrawn businesses from Russia and dropped shares in Russian state-controlled sectors, which is understandable given the uncertainties that the war brings to the Russian market, and given that tax-shares of salaries to Russians go to the Russian state. Some organisations however have excluded Russian participation in activities outside of the country. To name but a few examples, many American and European universities have decided to stop admittance of Russian students and researchers, Russian artists have been banned from a number of international exhibitions, concerts and events, and Russian sportsmen are excluded from international competitions like the Paralympic Games and Wimbledon.
Such educational and cultural sanctions are a gift for Putin’s narrative about anti-Russia xenophobia, and they will not have an economic effect either. In fact, activities outside of Russia might currently be the only chance for Western countries to influence Russian popular opinion so that they start blaming their own government instead of the West for their economic woes and lost opportunities. While financing civil society organisations inside of Russia is difficult since it could designate them as foreign agents, there are still ways to increase participation of Russian civil society in international activities while excluding Kremlin-linked individuals and refraining from any state-level agreements. Russian students – especially those who have been expelled from the Russian education-system due to participation in protests – could be invited to Western universities on scholarships. Such initiative has already been undertaken by for example Ruhr Universität Bochum in Germany. Artists as well as sportsmen could partake in activities based on crowdfunding instead of state-sponsorship.
The intention however should not be to exclusively help those who are already critical – but also to inform and influence those who seemingly support Putin. Thus, dialogue with and participation of a wide spectrum of Russian civil society is necessary. While one might ask how activities outside of Russia could ever help procure domestic change, we can only emphasise: these days critical information reaches Russian citizens much easier through private communication channels than via any other media – so it is no time to give up. Western governments and private organisations might want to look closer into alternative ways of helping Russians – to ultimately help Ukrainians too.
The economic effect of sanctions on ending the war could be more effective if the West opens some channels of dialogue to Russian civil society, increases efforts to help and inform the Russian public, and starts giving serious thought as to what it would take for sanctions to be lifted – so that Russians can see hope ahead if/when the war ends. While tough economic sanctions targeting the Russian regime and the Russian elite as well as state-controlled banks, companies and organisations might pressure Putin’s supporters to change their minds about him, cultural and academic sanctions excluding Russians from activities outside of Russia risk pushing Putin’s agenda. No matter if Ukraine wins or loses the war, it is in Western countries’ long-term interest to invite Russians to experience other narratives than those distributed by the Kremlin. By encouraging private organisations and academic institutions to inform and support Russians who are critically minded and willing to partake in activities outside of Russia, the West could increase public pressure on the Kremlin and sow the seeds for a more democratic Russia in the future.