The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 5: Western sanctions need to hurt the Putin regime at its core
by Julia Langbein
№ 42/2022 from Mar 01, 2022
Increasing repression and disinformation over the past years in Russia make it unlikely that current Western economic sanctions will have a large-scale mobilisation effect on the Russian people against the Putin regime. While the current sanctions regime is comprehensive, it needs a ban on Russian gas and oil imports by the EU and the US in order to deprive the Putin regime of respective revenues, which are the fundamental pillar on which its survival is based, argues Julia Langbein. As with the current sanctions, the effects will not unfold in the short-term. But a fundamental overhaul of Western energy policy will be key to counter Putin’s contestation of the Ukrainian state and the liberal script as a whole.
Unlike the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s latest decision to invade Ukraine on a large scale is not driven by motivations to increase the internal legitimacy of his leadership. In 2014, Russia’s contestation of the Ukrainian state happened against the backdrop of local protests against the Putin regime and the continuous presence of many social problems, which unfolded in Moscow and other Russian cities in 2011/2012. As Putin witnessed declining approval rates back then, the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine were meant to increase domestic support for the Putin regime – with success.
Today the situation is different: Over the past years, the repressive nature of the Putin regime has increased dramatically. Further, continuous disinformation and propaganda make it today unnecessary for Putin to increase the internal legitimacy of his regime, despite the fact that the Russian population faced shrinking real incomes and high inflation rates even before the Russian leadership started to attack Ukraine. Rather, Russia’s invasion in Ukraine is driven by the notion to achieve revisionist and neo-imperial aims, and to establish a Russia-friendly vassal state. The missing compulsion to increase internal legitimacy may also make Putin largely ignorant towards any political or economic costs that his regime and Russia as a whole might face because of the war in Ukraine and the Western sanctions, at least in the short term.
In light of comprehensive repression and disinformation in Russia, it is unlikely that the wave of protests against Russia and the expressed solidarity for Ukraine across Europe will spill over into Russia. On the one hand, protests in Moscow and other Russian cities against the ongoing war in Ukraine remain on a small scale and are subject to brutal crackdowns by Russian authorities. On the other hand, polling data, collected by the independent Levada center over the past years, and particularly at the end of 2021, offer a glimpse on how the majority of Russians may perceive the military attack against Ukraine. Based on the analysis of this data, Denis Volkov, Levada’s director, expects the propaganda of the Russian state media to work : The majority of Russians is likely to believe that Ukraine is controlled by the West, that the West – and the United States in particular – is to blame for this war, that Russia had no other choice than defending itself against Western (particularly US) aggression, and that the West would have always found a reason to impose further sanctions on Russia. There is certainly a risk that one cannot trust surveys conducted in authoritarian contexts because people do not dare to express their honest opinion. Still, it is very much likely that people start to believe the information provided by propaganda-infused media, in particular if disinformation is part of the game over a longer time-period, as is the case in Russia.
Therefore, it seems safe to state that the large majority of Russians is unlikely to challenge the narrative employed by Putin, which entails a Russia encircled by countries which contest Russia’s potential as a great power, thus forcing Russia to protect itself against its foreign enemies. According to Volkov, the Putin regime risks a decline in public support for its actions in Ukraine, should the war last too long and demand high numbers of causalities. At the same time, it is likely that the real number of fallen Russian soldiers will be smothered, as has been done with regard to the war in Donbas in 2014 and 2015.
Against this background, it is hard to predict when the consequences of the current Western economic sanctions against Russia will have a mobilisation effect on the Russian people, if at all.
Without doubt, the recently adopted sanctions by the EU and the United States are comprehensive. But not only are they unlikely to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine in the short-term, they also do not target the Putin regime where it would hurt most. As the Russian political scientist and journalist Kirill Rogov underlined in a recent analysis , the benefits from exporting natural resources are key for the survival of the closed economic model of redistribution which characterizes the internal logic of the Putin regime. The revenues from oil and gas exports are channelled into the hands of the Russian state and the so-called siloviki (the leaders of Russian military and intelligence agencies), who then use them for maintaining the enormous security apparatus as well as Putin-loyal patronage networks.
On top of the current sanctions, it is therefore also necessary that the EU and the United States stop gas and oil imports from Russia as soon as possible. As with the current sanctions, the resulting effects will not unfold in the short-term. But a fundamental overhaul of Western energy policy  will be key to counter Putin’s contestation of the Ukrainian state and the liberal script as a whole, as a ban on Russian gas and oil imports would deprive the Putin regime of respective revenues, which are the fundamental pillar on which its survival is based.
 https://www.dekoder.org/de/article/ukraine-konflikt-meinungsumfragen-lewada; accessed 28 February 2022.
 https://www.dekoder.org/de/article/krieg-ukraine-nutzen-putin-analyse; accessed 28 February 2022.
 https://time.com/6151766/u-s-sanctions-against-russia-gas-oil/; accessed 28 February 2022.
 For an analysis on how this can be done: https://www.bruegel.org/2022/02/preparing-for-the-first-winter-without-russian-gas/; accessed 28 February 2022.
Last edits for this blog entry were made on 28 February 2022, 11:43 p.m. CET.