How do you really hurt Putin?
The United States and elements of NATO are engaged in an undeclared war with Russia. This war — described as World War III by Fiona Hill, former deputy assistant to the president of the United States, and others — truthfully began in 2007, when Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his now-famous speech at the Munich Security Conference. It accelerated when Russia invaded Ukraine a second time in February 2022.
After six months of renewed conflict, a simple question has emerged: How do the U.S. and its allies in this war really hurt Putin? Underlying this question is another: Despite significant international sanctions against Russians collectively and Putin, his allies, and some Russian oligarchs individually, why has Putin remained so popular with the average Russian?
The efforts to hurt Putin so far have been substantial. Outside of Russia, Ukraine has resisted the Russian invasion, assisted by the US and its allies. Ukraine’s war efforts have undermined Putin’s narrative as an effective war leader. Sanctions by the EU, UK, and U.S. have led to the seizure of some assets, restricted international and some domestic travel for Russian elites, and limited some imports to, exports from and capital flows related to Russia.
Internally, some new opposition to Putin has begun to emerge. Possible successors are signaling their availability. Occasional public anti-war protests continue to occur. Grumbling about higher prices, shortages and travel headaches can be heard. Leaks of sensitive information appear to have increased as well.
Still, Putin appears to remain very popular. Initiatives to hurt him appear to have had little effect. Why?
Some reasons relate to the individual initiatives. For example, international sanctions are historically poor instruments to compel states to change their behavior and the same seems to be happening with Russia. The natural patriotism of the “second Russia” (those who live outside the big cities) has been strengthened by the Ukraine war, limiting a broad domestic uprising against Putin. The revolution does not appear to be near.
However, something more fundamental is at work. We now have a vast literature on Putin, including some excellent scholarly and journalistic work. But, to put it bluntly, this literature misses an important part of who Putin really is. The most rigorous studies conceptualize him variously as a KGB man, a new tsar, a kleptocrat, a macho man, a totalitarian and a judoist. One scholar, who has studied Putin longer and more intensively than many others, is honest enough to admit what this list betrays: Putin is contradictory and paradoxical.
But all these “Putinists” miss an essential point. Putin is an oligarch. Therein may lie the key to his downfall.
Oligarchs live on uncertainty. They thrive in emergent, unstructured environments where the rules of the game are unclear. Oligarchs like Putin gain and maintain wealth and power by keeping things up in the air. Keeping opponents off balance and guessing. They’re opportunists.
The U.S. and its allies are not going to win this war by better planning, executing better against that plan, banging away at Putin with more and better equipment, or more and better sanctions. They are only going to hurt Putin by depriving him of his oxygen: uncertainty.
How can they do that?
To soften him up, they can start by focusing on how to hurt Putin directly, not Russia or the Russian people. Aside from individual sanctions, very little has been done so far in this area. Initiatives should identify who Putin fears most, then incentivizing those actors to take punitive actions against Putin. For example, he is clearly fearful of and deferential to China’s President Xi Jinping, so actions that drive some distance between these two leaders are likely to be more effective. Exploiting differences in their personal interests could pay handsomely.
Relatedly, driving a wedge between Putin and the majority of Russians who continue to support him would hurt his political prospects significantly. The best way to do this is by ending the war with Ukraine. Doing so removes a significant incentive for Putin’s supporters to look to him for future leadership. It would shorten the legs on which he stands. And that would open up space for potential successors to emerge.
Having softened Putin up, the goal should then be to hurt him by reducing the uncertainty he faces, to make things more predictable and shrink his opportunity set so that he can’t take advantage of the situation as he has before. Uncertainty has enabled him to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world since World War II. Uncertainty creates opportunities for an oligarch like Putin. The goal should be to take away these openings, not keep creating new ones.
Right now, the U.S. and its allies are playing Putin’s game, trying to out-Putin him by introducing new sources of uncertainty in the Ukraine war such as advanced weapons systems and Western special forces operators. The Ukrainian approach from 2014 to 2022 was a better approach. Reduce uncertainty. Return to a normal life. Reestablish prewar patterns of behavior. Have the trains, the buses, even the airlines run on time again. Internationally, stop talking up the war. Talk it down. Ignore Putin. Don’t respond to either his words or his actions. Just carry on.
When these and other actions reduce uncertainty, then Putin will no longer be able to breathe — and then his power and wealth will fade away.
David Lingelbach is a professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore and author. He lived and worked in Russia from 1994 to 1999, where he served as president of Bank of America — Russia and worked with Vladimir Putin.
Valentina Rodríguez Guerra is an author and oligarch researcher.
Together they are writing a book about oligarchs, whom they’ve studied for more than a quarter century.