Punishing Putin Mostly Means Punishing His Foes

Washington wants more sanctions. But they would further strangle a pro-democracy movement on life support.

Arrest is a near certainty for Russian protesters.

Photographer: Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

After being surprised by broad-based protests in late March, the Russian authorities were ready to prevent a repeat on Monday. Police detained hundreds across the country as well as opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The protests themselves were thinner, too -- planning to be arrested, which is likely, is not for everyone -- but thousands still turned out.

QuickTake Sanctions

As I watched footage of police pulling people out of the crowds in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and dozens of other Russian cities, I couldn't help but wonder if U.S. politicians and commentators calling for economic sanctions against Russia realize who they are ultimately hurting. Is it President Vladimir Putin's repressive regime or the small number of courageous Russians he is repressing?

Senator Lindsey Graham on Sunday called for "punishing" Russia "for trying to destroy democracy" -- the U.S. democracy, that is -- and a group of legislators is working to combine various Russia sanctions proposals into a single amendment to a popular bill introducing sanctions against Iran. These proposals would codify the restrictions on Russia imposed by the Obama administration and add more measures against Russia's energy and defense industries. Barack Obama sought to change Putin's calculus with the sanctions; now the only goal appears to be punishing him as a response to his alleged meddling.

Upon closer examination, sanctions have been a questionable deterrent: Putin has held on to Crimea, continued backing Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine and waded into battle in Syria on behalf of President Bashar Assad. Putin's regime is far from teetering, and it's not internationally isolated, either. 1  

But Navalny -- who was picked up on Monday before he got anywhere near the rally he organized on Moscow's main street -- and people like him have received more than their fair share of punishment during the latest run of sanctions. Asked what he thought of them in early 2015, six months after the restrictions were introduced, Navalny appeared to think they were having some deterrence effect on Putin and weakening his domestic position -- but he also said this:

So far they're only pushing [Putin] to dig in deeper: Toughen the policy of repression, shut up the media, continue the war in Ukraine. I can't say much about the long-term prospects.

Three years after the sanctions were introduced, their limits are on full display 2 . Putin's use of the obvious Western hostility toward Russia as justification for tightening the screws has been visibly, tangibly successful. An April poll by the Levada Center, one of the last independent pollsters in Russia, showed that 28 percent of Russians believed Navalny was "working in the interests of the West." Only 12 percent said he was working for Russian interests.

Putin in command on Monday.

Photographer: Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

Navalny keeps fighting, saying he's running for president -- likely against Putin -- in 2018 despite being disqualified because of a criminal conviction on trumped-up charges. Monday's protests, planned long in advance for Russia's Independence Day, were part of his campaign, based on the anti-corruption investigations run by Navalny's non-profit foundation. The most recent one of these targeted Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and the shady non-profits, run by his friends, that own several luxury estates used by Medvedev.

The Moscow authorities had agreed to let Navalny and his supporters gather on one of the central avenues, but then the corruption fighter failed to find contractors to build a stage for the rally: Moscow firms acted as if he were toxic. In protest against the tactic, Navalny moved the action to Tverskaya, an unsanctioned location where police immediately swooped in to detain more than 700 of those who showed up. Some 500 were picked up in St. Petersburg and hundreds more in other Russian cities. And as Navalny himself was arrested while trying to leave the high-rise building where he lives, electricity at his office was cut off to disable his YouTube channel.

With so few Russian news outlets daring to cover the protests, Yandex News, the country's most powerful news aggregator, doesn't even pick up on the coverage. Navalny blasted Yandex for this in a blog post on Monday (the screenshot he used has a story about the U.S. sanctions bill on top, as it happens) -- but in reality, Putin's propaganda has drowned out all other voices. At the same time, protesting has become riskier because of the detentions and beatings, and it's grown harder for opposition leaders to run effective campaigns because businesses whose services they need are scared of retaliation.

As Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, I attended protests in Moscow along with lots of sedate, middle-aged citizens; I even brought my kids. Now, that would be out of the question, so it's mainly young people with little to lose and a penchant for risk who show up.

It would have been impossible to design sanctions in a way that would have denied Putin this tool of repression altogether. But if the sanctions were only against Putin's friends and odious, corrupt Kremlin officials, not against Russia as a country, they would have hurt the weakened Russian opposition less. They could have even strengthened its hand if the foreign assets of corrupt Russian officials were frozen; Navalny's investigations would have been backed up by stories of confiscated illicit wealth. But instead of working to make personal sanctions more effective -- no high-profile asset freezes have occurred, in fact -- Western politicians talk about increasing sectoral sanctions directed against the country, not just the regime.

Such measures tend to be sticky. The U.S. kept the 1974 Jackson-Vanick amendment, which restricted trade with the Soviet Union and Russia, in force long after Moscow stopped hampering Jewish emigration, which the law was meant to support. Punishment outlived the transgression by decades -- and, throughout the 1990's, it hurt Russia's fragile attempt to become part of the West.

The idea of "punishing Russia" is here to stay in U.S. domestic politics. "The Russians" is an abstract notion represented by the image of a smirking, bare-chested Putin. A month ago, U.S. legislators who favored heavier sanctions were still willing to wait for an investigation to produce specific results; somehow that no longer appears necessary. There's probably no way to stop the steamroller, but those calling for punishment should also keep in mind the images of Navalny being shoved into a police car and the thousands protecting their heads against rubber sticks. That the regime takes out its hatred of the West on these people, and most of Russia looks on -- and much of it even nods along -- is among the side effects of protecting democracy as the "punishers" understand it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. One can argue that without the restrictions, Putin could have gone further, but all of Putin's adventures have clearly been designed to minimize cost and especially military losses. A full-scale war on Ukraine or a major land operation in the Middle East was never on the cards because either could threaten the regime.

  2. As punishment, however, Western sanctions -- especially the European ones introduced under U.S. pressure -- haven't been entirely useless. Russian economists have estimated that the country lost about 1.5 percent of economic output thanks to them in 2014 and 2015, and every additional year of the restrictions is costing the Russian economy about 900 billion rubles ($15.8 billion). That's not unmanageable for the Russian economy. It's out of recession, and both investment and domestic demand are increasing. "Yes, the sanctions are playing a certain role, but, as we see it, this effect has been greatly exaggerated, and now it's been reduced practically to nothing," Central Bank governor Elvira Nabiullina told the Russian parliament on Friday.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mike Nizza at

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