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Putin’s Dilemma

PARIS – Many critics argue that the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Ukraine are ineffective, because they are too limited in scale and scope. Moreover, sanctions are seen as allowing President Vladimir Putin to blame the West for Russia’s internal problems. Indeed, some of Putin’s supporters within Russia welcome the sanctions as a means to compel Russian autarky – and thus strategic independence from the West.

These arguments are wrong. Though the sanctions are not backed by China, they are already having a powerful effect, and the expectation that they will be tightened further is a huge concern for investors and the Russian government. Full autarky, meanwhile, would imply a dramatic decline in Russian living standards – the foundation of Putin’s domestic support.

The latest sanctions are unprecedented. The European Union went even further than the United States. Exposure to Russian markets varies widely among EU countries – and between the EU and the US. But, after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, Russia can no longer pursue a divide-and-rule strategy that leverages these differences.

Both the EU and the US have now sanctioned Russia’s highest officials and leading companies and banks. The EU list includes all of the main state-owned banks (the country’s largest). Most important, the EU added Sberbank, a cornerstone of Russia’s financial system, with assets totaling almost 30% of Russian GDP and about half of Russian retail deposits.