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Why Sanctions on Russia Don’t Work

MOSCOW – The Western approach to Russia is predicated on the supposition that continued pressure on the country will cause President Vladimir Putin’s regime to make concessions or even crumble. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The assumption underlying the efficacy of Western sanctions is that the sharp economic deterioration that results from them will turn the Russian public, particularly the financial and political elite, against the Kremlin. Putin will not be able to withstand mounting dissent from affluent urban areas and the country’s burgeoning middle class.

Meanwhile, the thinking goes, military pressure – in the form of potential lethal aid to Ukraine – will similarly mobilize ordinary Russians against Putin. Unwilling to see their boys die for the Donbas, they will form an anti-war movement that will force him to rein in his territorial ambitions. Pressed at once from above and from below, the Kremlin will be have to change its policies, and perhaps even begin to democratize.

What Western policymakers fail to understand is that such an approach is less likely to undermine the regime than to cause Russians to close ranks behind it. Opinion polls show that Russians perceive Western pressure and sanctions to be aimed not at Putin and his cronies, but at Russia and its citizens. In January, 69% of Russians supported the Kremlin’s policy in Ukraine, according to a poll by the independent Levada Center.