The Wrong Way to Punish Putin

How to Pressure Moscow Without Boosting the Kremlin and Alienating Russians

Obama Putin Russia Snowden Gay Rights Summit Moscow
Obama and Putin in Ireland, June 2013 (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

Punishing Russia is all the rage these days. After Moscow gave temporary asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden, U.S. Senator John McCain proposed extending the “Magnistky List” of Russian officials barred from entering the United States, speeding deployment of missile defenses in Europe, and rapidly expanding NATO to include Georgia. The British actor Stephen Fry and various LGBT activists have advocated a boycott of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics to protest recent Russian policies targeting gays and lesbians. Gay bars in the United States have reportedly started dumping their stocks of Stolichnaya vodka.

Most significantly, on Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was supposed to take place in September in Moscow, expressing displeasure at the Kremlin’s granting of asylum to Snowden, among other things.

Anger with Russia’s behavior on these scores is perfectly understandable. Snowden has been charged with serious crimes and Washington has a legitimate interest in bringing him to trial. Russia’s recent law banning “pro-homosexual propaganda” has created a climate of aggression, in which vigilantes attack LGBT Russians and post horrifying videos of their violence online.

But before leaping into action, those eager to punish Russia should consider two things. First, why is Putin behaving in this way? And second, will the sanctions in question hurt him or actually benefit him? Given that Putin is currently fighting for his political life, a public showdown with the West will help him stay afloat. The Americans and Europeans who want to change Moscow’s course should therefore be careful not to play into Putin’s hands.

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES

Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, sweeping aside former President Dmitri Medvedev’s soothing talk of modernization, exposed splits both within Russian society and within the country’s ruling circles. The president has lost the support of Russia’s intellectual and cultural elite, along with that of much of the business community. His approval rating, which has remained in the low 60s for several months now, gives a misleading impression of stability. That figure can be expected to fall, as it is closely linked to the country’s economic performance, which has recently begun to decline.

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