Putin Is Going to Lose His War
And the World Should Prepare for Instability in Russia
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.
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.
In this context, the Kremlin’s campaign of repressive laws, intimidating investigations, and anti-American rhetoric has two purposes. First, it aims to scare back into line the administrative elite, which had started taking liberties under Medvedev. Its second goal is to drive a cultural wedge between the liberal opposition to Putin -- located mostly in Moscow and St Petersburg --and his remaining supporters in the more conservative and traditional provinces. On both fronts, Western actions can either complicate Putin’s task or make it easier.
The Kremlin’s shameless homophobia follows a simple political logic. On gay rights, Putin is in the Russian majority, whereas many of his liberal critics are not. When it comes to LGBT issues, the Russian public feels today almost exactly as Americans did 30 years ago. When the World Values Survey asked Russian respondents in 2006 whether homosexuality was “ever justifiable,” 66 percent said that it was not, the exact percentage of U.S. respondents who answered the same way in 1982.
Although evolving attitudes in the West have made it harder for American and European politicians to exploit homophobia, the same is not true in Russia. In fact, since the day antigovernment protesters mobbed Moscow’s central squares in December 2011, Putin has harped on sexual themes. In his first public comments in response to the demonstrations, he claimed to have mistaken the white ribbons protesters wore in their lapels for condoms. The goal is to produce a sense of discomfort when Russians think about the prodemocracy activists. To the extent Kremlin spokesmen can paint the protesters as culturally alien, Putin wins. His greatest nightmare is that Moscow and the provinces will unite against him on issues such as economic performance or corruption.
A Western boycott of the Sochi Olympics might serve some purposes beyond Russia. It would show gays and lesbians in the West that they are broadly respected. It could also theoretically discourage populists and authoritarians in other countries from exploiting hatred. But it would probably not improve the plight of gays in Russia. Putin’s spokesmen would cast such a boycott as a slap in the face not just for the Kremlin but for all of Russia, an arrogant attempt by Westerners to impose their postmodern values on an Orthodox society. Indeed, such advocacy from the outside could end up making Russia’s own LGBT citizens seem even more foreign.
Consider the recent scandal involving Pussy Riot. A campaign of international pressure that enlisted celebrities from Madonna to Paul McCartney did not win the imprisoned performers any leniency. But it did help a highly vulnerable Putin regain his balance. Before the Pussy Riot arrests, Moscow had been engulfed by popular anger at an election that many believed had been stolen. Overnight, the topic of conversation changed from electoral rights to the right of feminist collectives to perform, uninvited, in Orthodox cathedrals.
The Snowden case is also one in which Western threats and sanctions help Putin more than they hurt him. The Kremlin can point out that the United States has not agreed to sign an extradition treaty with Russia and that Washington is applying double standards. It is hard to imagine that the Americans would deport a contractor for the Russian intelligence services who arrived in New York after revealing his former masters’ secret wiretaps of Russian and foreign citizens.
In this context, lecturing Putin for failing to hand over a whistleblower who exposed possibly illegal acts by U.S. spy agencies will only increase the president’s appeal to Russians and make Western demands for greater transparency seem hypocritical. Had Putin caved, he would have looked spineless.
THE RIGHT KIND OF PRESSURE
Although punishing Putin for stoking anti-gay sentiment and sheltering a leaker of U.S. secrets would, on balance, strengthen him in his domestic fight, there are issues on which he is more vulnerable. If the West wants to pressure Russia’s leadership effectively, it should do so on issues where its values and priorities line up with those of the Russian public.
For starters, Western governments should speak out more forcefully about unjust and politically motivated uses of Russia’s court system. Most Russians feel vulnerable to the whims of corrupt judges, who bend laws and ignore evidence to jail critics of the politically powerful or expropriate honest businessmen. The conviction of the opposition leader and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny for embezzlement, after a trial marred by procedural irregularities, is only the latest example of judicial overreach.
Meanwhile, Russians throughout the country are familiar with the tricks that have come to characterize elections under Putin. Western governments could find ways to distinguish between those officials elected more or less cleanly and those whose elections prompted credible reports of fraud. They could then informally exclude the unfairly elected officials from invited delegations and Western-organized events.
Of course, Putin would denounce such measures as foreign interference. But since the Western accusations would echo the beliefs and frustrations of ordinary Russians -- in both Moscow and the provinces -- they would impose real costs on Putin rather than bolster his position.
The one Western sanction that has undeniably dismayed the Kremlin elite is the “Magnitsky List,” which, besides banning certain Russian officials from travelling to the United States, freezes their assets in U.S. banks. European governments ought to consider introducing a similar list of their own, perhaps to block European travel or property ownership for those local officials most implicated in electoral and legal abuses.
The West cannot speed up the growth of civil society and democratic politics in Russia: only Russians can do this. But it may be able to accentuate splits between the more and less corrupt elements of the administrative elite while gradually convincing the majority of ordinary Russians that it stands with them in their quest for better governance.
How effective Western measures prove depends not just on the issues targeted but also on the timing. Some indications suggest that the Kremlin’s repressive streak of the last year may be running out of steam. The effort by Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin to legitimize himself by winning a relatively clean election suggests there are still some in high circles who want to do things the right way. At the same time, plunging economic indicators make improving the business climate in order to restart growth all the more vital.
Even as the West criticizes the blatant abuses of Russia’s judicial and electoral systems, it will have to continue to work with Russia pragmatically on core interests that concern both sides: arms control, Syria, Iran, North Korea, and more. These issues are simply too important for the United States to refuse to talk to Russian leaders. Indeed, on most of these problems, Washington needs Moscow’s help more than vice versa.
The fundamental issue that divides the West from Russia’s current rulers is not that they pass homophobic laws, oppose NATO membership for Georgia, or refuse to deport Snowden. It is that they have largely eliminated open, competitive politics and preside over an unaccountable state. By targeting the officials most implicated in these abuses, the United States and Europe can both punish Putin effectively and nudge Russia in a democratic direction.