THE Russian-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine added another 298 civilian victims to the mounting death toll with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The international, largely Western, passenger roster brought the conflict from the remote fields of eastern Ukraine squarely into the international arena.
Widespread condemnation of the actions of the insurgents has predictably followed, but little has been done or will be done to punish those responsible.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is among those responsible because of his ongoing support of fighters in Eastern Ukraine. He is finally facing outrage from the public and policymakers for this devastating consequence of his sweep through Crimea.
Outrage alone will not be enough to get Putin to change his course. Putin has faced international outrage and condemnation before — for the Russian army’s brutal conduct against civilians during the Chechen wars, for Russia’s refusal to pressure Syrian President Bashar Assad to stop murdering his own citizens in Syria, and for Putin’s annexation and occupation of Crimea.
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Putin has shown in the past he is adept at exploiting divisions between the U.S. and Europe to avoid much more than verbal lashings for Russia’s destabilizing actions. Post-Crimea Western sanctions are, however, showing an impact on Russia’s economy.
The stronger sanctions the U.S. and Europe imposed Tuesday could start to have a political toll. But if the U.S. and the European Union are unable to stay unified on more extensive sanctions, Putin would not be compelled to undertake any constructive steps to end the fighting in Ukraine.
Putin’s insistent narrative that Ukraine is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the plane’s downing flies in the face of logic — and accumulating evidence. But his insistence on this narrative and unwillingness to change course, even as rebels in Eastern Ukraine shot down two Ukrainian fighter jets days after, and not far from, where Flight 17 was brought down, reinforce that Putin’s main concern is not international reaction but domestic.
Any effort to change Putin’s calculus must take this into account. Military action against Russia is not on the table, nor should it be. But sanctions are. Raising the cost to Putin by extending and strengthening sanctions, including introducing sectoral sanctions and an arms embargo, are the best, and perhaps only, tools that the U.S. and other governments have to raise the costs for Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
Sanctions can work because the costs Putin most cares about are domestic. After seeing large protests against the regime in late 2011 through 2013, Putin responded harshly, concerned about his grip on power as his approval rate plummeted to 54 percent. A storyline of Western threats and machinations against Russia found resonance as domestic events unfolded violently in Ukraine — a threat of things to come.
Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the vocal (and material) support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine, Putin’s approval rating has risen. With his opponents marginalized and jailed, his manipulation of nationalist sentiment has paid off. Now, Putin’s approval rating matches his previous all-time high in 2008 of 83 percent.
But his reaction to domestic events in Russia shows Putin’s vulnerability. Stronger sanctions can exploit that vulnerability and might change Putin’s position. The potential for widespread discontent with the economic consequences of Russia’s political and military aggression among the citizenry and (economic) elites could change Putin’s political calculations and compel Russia to stop blatantly undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy.
It is, admittedly, a big if. Sanctions might not work. Russia has significant hard-currency reserves that could blunt the effect of tougher sanctions in the short term. Putin is also counting on continuing divisions in Europe, which is a safe bet.
But Russia’s oligarchs have already lost some $14 billion this year as the Russian economy suffers from the targeted sanctions that have been put into place.
Sectoral sanctions would inflict more economic hardship on Putin’s richest supporters. Putin has jailed an oligarch before for straying into politics. Could he jail them all? Putin’s calculus might depend on who can hold out the longest — the Russian economy or Western consensus.
Jacqueline McLaren Miller is president and chief executive of the World Affairs Council of Seattle and a Truman National Security Project Fellow.