Responding to the renewed crisis in Ukraine, on Tuesday the European Union (EU) moved towards imposing economic sanctions on associates of Vladimir Putin, with foreign ministers agreeing to “concrete proposals” to create a list of the president’s “cronies” who would be subject to punitive measures.
Following on from sanctions earlier imposed by Washington, this week’s push by the EU to inflict more punishing strictures against Russia’s elites could not only have far-reaching consequences for the future conflict between Moscow and Kiev, but pose an existential threat to the Putin regime.
“The Russian political system rewards strong leaders who can keep order and stability, while providing the opportunity for people to gain economically,” Kimberly Marten, a professor of political science at Barnard College and Columbia University, told HuffPost. “The alternative in the minds of the population and the inner circle of elites is the terrible instability and violence of the 1990s.”
So, on the surface, all Putin needs to do is show the West a strong face while maintaining the stability and open markets that have allowed the elite class to prosper. However, herein sits the problem: within Russia’s “inner circle of elites”, various different interests are coming into conflict.
According to Samuel Greene, the Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, the security establishment (members of the military and the secret services), and the ideological establishment (nationalists), both of which espouse a very isolationist agenda, are “pushing up against the interests of the business elites” who profit from the ability to move money and goods across borders.
“Putin’s goal is not to make any of the groups happy but to maintain a balance and a steady state,” says Greene. “What becomes a threat to him is if the system is unbalanced and everyone comes to the conclusion that they might be better off without him or with some other leadership.”
The problem for Putin is that sanctions targeted at members of the elite are likely to stir such an imbalance, the president’s high-wire act made all the more difficult by the nationalistic and imperialistic fervour he deliberately unleashed as a means to justify past actions, most recently the annexation of Crimea. As Greene points out, “It serves Putin’s purposes to use ideology as a tool to give the state legitimacy, to mobilise against the political opposition and marginalise them, and to justifying a certain amount of confrontation with the West.”
However, Putin may well have become hostage to this ideological framing. “The more you use it, and the more widespread it becomes in the media, the harder it becomes to back away from,” says Greene. A further consequence of the nationalistic rhetoric is the inspiration it provides for people within the hierarchy, who look to strengthen themselves through the ideology or “trying to be holier than the pope”. If people below are ratcheting up the ideology, Putin has to keep up or he could face a challenge from those that have bought into his imperial rhetoric.
So the Russian president can’t back down from the West without facing some tough questions from the ideological and security wings, but can’t shoulder economic sanctions without likewise weakening his position with those whose interests reside in international commerce.
It is this predicament that could prove an existential threat to Putin’s regime. “The problem for authoritarian rulers is that you make one mistake and you’re out of the game, and you’re out of it for good… there’s no coming back,” says Greene. As such, Putin is constantly fighting against not only real internal threats but perceived threats. “As soon as it looks like there might be an alternative or a better way, particularly for the elites, then he’s vulnerable.”
Yet even if Putin were deposed by an internal challenge, it is unlikely to come in the form of a liberal democrat bent on better relations with the West. As Marten forewarns, “Russians are afraid of changing away from Putin, because he has provided what they want. But if he starts slipping, and people doubt his ability to continue to provide order and wellbeing, the alternative is likely to be an even stronger nationalist who might move the country toward fascism.”