By Andrea Kendall-Taylor:
As long as he is in power, Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to substantively change his strategic calculus, despite Western economic pressure. While it is important that the United States maintain targeted sanctions on the Russian elite—and be prepared to increase those sanctions in response to further illegal or belligerent Russian actions—U.S. policy must move beyond sanctions. The United States should better position itself to improve relations with Moscow once Putin departs and work to reduce the risk of a tighter union between Russia and China.
The economy is an important element of Putin’s control. For the last several years, however, the Russian economy has declined or been stagnant, and economists estimate that the Russian economy will grow only between 1 and 2 percent annually over the next ten years. Russia’s mounting economic challenges are creating problems for Putin. Such economic conditions mean that Putin has fewer resources to keep the elite loyal. It also means that economic hardship for the average Russian may breed discontent. Putin’s approval rating has dipped into the mid 60s for the first time since the illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014.
But poor economic conditions alone are unlikely to change Putin’s calculus. This is because Putin would likely turn to other tools of control—rather than backing down from his assertive foreign policy—to manage domestic pressure. First, Putin would be likely to increase repression. Already, Putin has increased repression as the economy has stagnated and he is likely to increasingly rely on the security services and other forms of coercion to maintain his control.
U.S. policies designed to cripple Russia economically are also likely to backfire in the long term, harming Russians and fueling Putin’s narrative that the West seeks to keep Russia down.
Putin would also be likely to respond to increasing economic pressure by ratcheting up anti-U.S. rhetoric. Scapegoating the United States and portraying Russia as under siege from a hostile America is a well-worn Putin tactic that has helped sustain his support and could continue to do so in the future.
Additionally, U.S. efforts to target Russia’s economy, including through sanctions, would be unlikely to sufficiently starve Putin of the resources he needs to execute his foreign policy objectives. Instead, Putin is increasing Russian influence on the cheap. Putin’s use of limited military interventions, cyber operations, and influence campaigns are relatively inexpensive for Russia and are unlikely to be curbed by sanctions.
There are also political costs to U.S. measures targeting the Russian economy. U.S. sanctions are making China a more attractive partner for the Kremlin. A more comprehensive U.S. economic pressure campaign would only push Moscow even further toward Beijing. China has already become Russia’s largest trading partner, is the largest purchaser of Russian oil, and Russian arms sales to China have grown. U.S. policies designed to cripple Russia economically are also likely to backfire in the long term, harming Russians and fueling Putin’s narrative that the West seeks to keep Russia down. Russians see themselves as a great country and a great power. Efforts to cripple the Russian economy would provide motivation for future efforts to re-assert themselves, rather than joining the Western camp.
In the face of these challenges, U.S. policy leaders should adapt their approach. They must continue to use targeted sanctions on individual Russian officials in coordination with Europe to respond to further Russian aggression. But rather than embark on a more comprehensive economic pressure campaign, policymakers should pursue alternative approaches to demonstrate to Russians that Putin is taking Russia in the wrong direction. This can include the following:
- Restore lines of communication and connections with Russia: Connections between the United States and Russia are lower now than during the Cold War. Building relationships, including with younger Russians, is the best bet for stabilizing relations with a post-Putin Russia.
- Push into Russia: The United States should place greater emphasis on programs designed to show Russians that Putin is the barrier to a better way of life by displaying the parasitic nature of the Putin regime.
- Build democratic resilience in Europe: The United States should prioritize democracy and good governance support to Central and Eastern Europe and enhance U.S. and European capacity to fight illicit finance, money laundering, and other corrupt networks that Russia uses to penetrate Western societies.
Managing the threat that Russia poses will require a comprehensive strategy that includes both strong responses to Russian aggression and efforts to cooperate where interests overlap. U.S. policies must avoid an over-reliance on economic punishment and more fully incorporate policies designed to position Washington to effectively engage with a post-Putin Russia.
Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Europe, focusing on Russia, populism and threats to democracy, and the state of the Transatlantic alliance.
Read the full CNAS "U.S. Strategies to Counter Russia" commentary series below:
Embedding Sanctions in U.S. Russia Strategy
- Edward Fishman, "Russia Sanctions in 2019: Clarifying a Strategy"
- Peter Harrell, "The Goals of Sanctioning Russia"
Prospects for Transatlantic Cooperation on Russia Policy
- John Hughes, "The U.S. & Europe May Return to Common Sanctions Policies on Russia"
- Elizabeth Rosenberg, "U.S. Policy Toward Russia and a Deepening Transatlantic Divide"
- Rachel Rizzo, "Europe and the United States: A Diverging Approach Toward Russia?"
Russian Domestic Politics and Greater Russia-China Cooperation
- Neil Bhatiya, "What Pressuring Russian Oligarchs Accomplishes"
- Ashley Feng, "China-Russia Cooperation Presents a Fresh Threat to the United States"
- Andrea Kendall-Taylor, "U.S. Russia Policy: Moving Beyond Sanctions"
Russia’s Macroeconomic Vulnerabilities
- Sam Dorshimer, "Considering Sanctions on Russian Sovereign Debt"
- Rachel Ziemba, "Russia’s Resiliency Toolkit"