Can Western sanctions alter Putin’s behavior?

Can Western economic sanctions against Russia alter Vladimir Putin’s behavior? Do these sanctions place increased pressure on him? In thinking about these questions, I have been reflecting on five lessons that Putin and other Russians have taught me.

Lesson one is simple yet jarring to many Western ears. A Russian one told it to me when I was running an American bank in Moscow during the 1990s.

Understand, he said, how the Russians against whom you are negotiating see the world. How Russian oligarchs and senior government officials take control of the messy situations in which they find themselves constantly.

First, he said, you bomb the village. Then, you negotiate with the ashes. No win-win. Just straight-up annihilation. And anyone who does not do that to you first is weak. And can be bombed, literally or figuratively.

Lesson two comes from former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, whose proverbs and aphorisms were legend back in the day.

His best-known saying is this: We hoped for the best, but somehow it turned out like always.

In other words, bomb the village and negotiate with the ashes. But don’t expect anything great to come from that.

Lessons three, four and five come straight from my own experience in negotiating with Putin.

Lesson three: Don’t try to out-Putin Putin. Don’t think that you can be tougher or more clever than he is. Because you aren’t. This is especially true when you are in or near his territory — remember Georgia in 2008 and the Donbass and Crimea in 2014. Western leaders have ignored this insight for decades, and that is part of the reason we are where we are.

Lesson four: Make Putin look good. He is not necessarily interested in making the West look bad. He just wants what he perceives as a fairer share of the pie. He wants a deal that benefits both parties (the West and Russia), because he understands that such deals are stable. Note the contradiction with lesson No. 1.

Lesson five: Let him show his power, but deployed in ways that might help you. The Russians have a word, “krysha,” which means umbrella. Let him share a bit of his umbrella with you.

So, how can these five lessons from the world in which Russia and Putin live inform how we think about the West’s single largest move against Russia so far: economic sanctions? How might they inform a move toward an end to the dangerous situation in which the world finds itself? I have three insights.

The first insight is that Putin’s expectations must be understood. Yes, Russia is bombing Ukrainian villages and hoping to negotiate with their ashes. But Putin also understands that this war was always likely to become the mess that it has become. That mess does not bother him and is not pressuring him to change his approach.

The second insight is that, regarding sanctions, Putin’s expectations are similarly low. He understands very well that they are not going to achieve their intended result. And, if they do, Russia can bear it. Sanctions are very unlikely to force him from power. For Putin, sanctions will turn out as they have with Iran, Cuba and North Korea: As Madame Thénardier said of her husband in “Les Misérables,” there’s not much there. So, increasing the level of sanctions and expanding their reach are — in the mind of Putin — likely to be seen as performative, for consumption by Western citizens.

The third insight is that Putin is likely to be enjoying the tougher rhetoric from the West these days. It likely does not pressure him. He has seen Western leaders come and go, and only a few — former German Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to mind — got his number and dialed it. Tougher rhetoric or tougher sanctions — trying to out-Putin Putin — seem very unlikely to threaten him. So far, no one has out-Putined Putin.

So, what is the West to do? If sanctions won’t work, and no-fly zones will lead to the unviable option of likely nuclear escalation, what then?

Swallow hard now. To alter Putin’s behavior, the West must de-escalate this conflict. To do so, my view continues to be that a way must be found to make Putin look good. I have written before about the need to find offramps for him.

How can the West make him look good now? First, treat him like a serious negotiating partner, like Churchill and FDR did with Stalin, instead of engaging in childish demonizing. Second, include Russia in the global security architecture, even if that means as a leading partner of the anti-NATO alliance emerging between Russia, China, Iran and others. Let Putin show his and Russia’s power. Legitimize and recognize that multipolarity, rather than doubling down on Russia’s isolation. Moves like Biden calling to remove Russia from the G-20 aren’t helpful. 

The West should make Putin look good, not because Putin is a nice guy or a good guy. Rather, because it’s the best available alternative and in the West’s best interests. Because the global consequences of an unstable, nuclear-armed Russia ruled by an angry, isolated and very clever man (or a successor of unknown type) are far, far worse than even the horrible situation on the ground in Ukraine today.

Putin’s go-to move is always going to be to bomb the village and negotiate with the ashes. Even if it turns out as it always does. And the Russian leaders after Putin will do the same.

David Lingelbach is an associate professor of entrepreneurship at The University of Baltimore. 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. He has studied oligarchs for more than a quarter century — the subject of his forthcoming book.   

Tags David Lingelbach Europe NATO Russia sanctions Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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