EU sanctions against Russian elites could pose existential threat to Putin regime

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.”

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Putin’s anti-gay propaganda law finds support among America’s social conservatives

In a recent attack on the White House, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan paraphrased Ronald Reagan by suggesting “Barack Obama’s America” had taken the place of the Soviet Union as the world’s “evil empire”. It was an appraisal that echoed a speech given by Vladimir Putin in mid-December, in which the Russian leader said that over the past twenty years the US and the erstwhile communist state had switched roles.

For many on America’s Christian right, the Cold War represented more than a bi-polar nuclear stand-off between two superpowers but the bleeding edge of a cosmic battle between the faithful (America) and the Godless (the Soviets). Yet more than two decades after the end of the Soviet experiment, American social conservatives are now looking to Moscow as the guardian of the Christian moral compass.

Since the introduction of Russia’s now-infamous anti-gay propaganda law in June, the country has witnessed a sharp upturn in the number of attacks on members of its LGBT community, while those protesting the legislation have found themselves often targeted by police for mistreatment and arrest.

The bill, which bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations“, was introduced by Putin as a means of buttressing his dwindling support among Russia’s youth by appealing to members of the very conservative Russian Orthodox Church. In July, Putin declared, “The adoption of Christianity became a turning point in the fate of our fatherland, made it an inseparable part of the Christian civilization and helped turn it into one of the largest world powers”. This mixture of religion and nationalism was not only a nod to the faithful, but a populist sop to a citizenry of which 90% support legislation that stigmatises the gay community.

Unsurprisingly, the move was decried around the globe, with Europe and the US particularly vocal in their condemnation. Just last week, more than 50 current and former Olympians criticised the anti-gay law, and called on the International Olympic Community (IOC) and the event’s multinational sponsors to do more to change the situation in Russia ahead of this week’s games in Sochi.

Since the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) was ruled unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court last June, American gay rights advocates have stepped up their efforts to end bans on gay marriage in at least 20 states, a move that enjoys considerable public support with a 2013 Gallup poll suggesting that around 50% of American adults favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

Momentum has gathered so quickly that the established wing of a highly divided Republican Party seems to have lost its appetite for a fight over the issue, with House GOP lawyers withdrawing from a defence of DOMA in July. More recently, when asked if the Party should support two openly gay Republican candidates running for office, House Speaker John Boehner stated publically that he did.

Yet equal marriage remains a controversial phenomenon in the US, particularly for the Republican Party’s right flank. So, with the GOP establishment either preoccupied with a futile attempt to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act or an unwillingness to push against the populist tide, Putin’s draconian legislation has become a clarion call for social conservatives across America’s religious heartland.

Just days after Russia’s anti-gay legislation became law, the Daily Caller, a conservative news and opinion website, published a swooning editorial by Austin Ruse, the President of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, entitled ‘Putin is not the gay bogeyman’. In the article the author praises Russian resistance to the “political movement to regularise and even celebrate homosexuality,” while criticising the law’s American opponents, stating that there is no “human right to parade your sexual preferences and practices down public streets”.

A week later, Larry Jacobs of the World Congress of Families (WCF) gave a radio interview in which he called the Russians the “Christian saviours to the world,” before heralding the anti-propaganda law as “a great idea”.

In August, Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing mouthpiece who hosts a daily syndicated radio show, explained that Russia’s anti-gay laws were a reaction to the country’s need for population growth, reasoning that more people are required for economic security, while offering praise for the Russian leader for “putting his foot down” against a “full-frontal assault on what has always been considered normalcy”.

The same month, Kris Mineau, head of the Massachusetts Family Institute, struck a more nuanced tone during a recorded Tea Party conference call, attacking President Obama for his opposition to Russia’s anti-gay legislation while noting that by cancelling the planned summit with Putin one day after criticising the Russian law,Obama had turned the advancement of LGBT rights into American foreign policy.

Similarly, Buchanan has on several occasions stated his admiration of the Kremlin, most notably stating that “Putin was trying to re-establish the Orthodox Church as the moral compass of the nation it had been for 1,000 years before Russia fell captive to the atheistic and pagan ideology of Marxism”. Writing in the World Net Daily, the 75-year-old former senior advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan, continued his moral rebuke by lamenting, “Only yesterday, homosexual sodomy, which Thomas Jefferson said should be treated like rape, was outlawed in many states and same-sex marriage was regarded as an absurdity.

Yet American support for Russia’s state-backed persecution goes further back than 2013, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) highlighting 14 leaders of American conservatism that have visited Russia in recent years to specifically lobby for anti-gay legislation. Indeed, the Illinois-based WCF, just one of six US groups to have signed a controversial global petition backing Russia’s anti-gay law, is scheduled to hold its next global meeting in Moscow this September, with the Russian organisers trumpeting their credentials on the event’s website:

[The] choice of Moscow as the place to organize the next Congress is connected to serious steps in our country [Russia] at the national and international levels aimed at protection of the natural family, family and moral values. Efforts of representatives of Russian society, Russian pro-family organizations defending the priority of marriage and family, parental rights and the sovereignty of the family, the right of children to live with their family, with father and mother, spiritual and moral foundations of human society were highly praised by WCF organizing committee.

In a December speech, Putin struck a similarly conservative chord, arguing that, “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.”

Throughout the Cold War, America’s tough stance towards the Soviets was buttressed by a religious right ready to decry communism as the embodiment of Satan on earth. Viewing the Soviets and communist system as literally evil (and conversely America and capitalism as good) proved a comfortable fit with the premillennial worldview of the evangelical masses.

Yet the spiritual battle ground appears to have shifted with American social conservatives now viewing homosexuality rather than communism as the centre-piece of the good-versus-evil paradigm. So with equality being pushed at home, while Putin fashions himself as a 21st century protector of the Godly abroad, it’s perhaps unsurprising that those on America’s religious right are now looking east and seeing another piece of Reaganite imagery – that “shining city upon a hill”.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.