Right now Vladimir Putin is losing the battle for Ukraine. His ultimate goals have been abandoned (for now); his troops around Kyiv are in retreat; his imperial dreams are being disowned. He has more modest goals to fall back on, resources and territory he can hold onto, but a month of Ukrainian courage and Western support has dealt a devastating blow to his ambitions.
However, Putin is not losing in the battle for Russia. Since the beginning of hostilities, the Western response to his maximalist ambitions—not an official goal, but a hope that informs politics and scholarship and escapes Joe Biden’s lips in moments of emotion—has been regime change. in the Kremlin, a failed war that overthrows Putin and bring to power a more reasonable government.
This was always a dim hope, but despite the unprecedented military impasse and economic sanctions, it now looks even dimmer. In both polls and anecdotes, Putin appears to be cementing the support of the Russian public, rallying a nation that feels as he portrays it: unfairly surrounded and besieged.
His approval ratings, according to Russia’s leading independent pollster, resemble those of George W. Bush after 9/11. His inner circle has always been unlikely to break with him, for reasons outlined by Anatol Lieven in The Financial Times a few weeks ago: Its members mostly come from the same background, share the same geopolitical assumptions, and are far more likely to ” fight.” ruthlessly for a long time” than to suddenly turn against their leader. But even in the wider circle of Russian elites, the war has so far generated more anti-Western solidarity than division.
“Putin’s dream of consolidation among the Russian elite has come true,” journalist Farida Rustamova reported of their recent conversations. “These people understand that their lives are now tied only to Russia, and that is where they will have to build them.”
Of course, it is reasonable to question both the anecdote and the data of a system that punishes dissent. But these kinds of patterns shouldn’t be surprising. Yes, failed wars sometimes topple authoritarian regimes, like the Argentine junta after its misfortune in the Falkland Islands. But sanctions imposed from abroad, economic warfare, often end up strengthening the internal power of the target regime. In the short term, they provide an external scapegoat, an obvious enemy to blame for difficulties rather than their own leaders. In the long run, the academic literature suggests, they can make states more repressive, less likely to democratize.
Just consider the list of bad countries that the United States has used sanctions against for long periods of time. From Cuba to North Korea, from Iran to Venezuela, not to mention Iraq before our 2003 invasion, the pattern is predictable: the people suffer, the regime endures.
Our assumption should be, not a certainty, but a guiding premise, that the same thing will happen with a sanctioned and isolated Russia. Even if support for Putin fades as economic pain mounts, the forces empowered by Russian suffering will not be liberal. And any change in leadership is more likely to resemble Nicolás Maduro succeeding Hugo Chávez than the revolutions of 1989.
This assumption has two implications. The first is for the war itself: in the short term, whatever Ukraine gets back, it will get back on the battlefield, not through some deus ex Moscow bringing a friendlier Russian government to the negotiating table. This does no it implies that the United States should suddenly escalate militarily, dancing closer to a nuclear conflict. But it does imply that maintaining support for the Ukrainian armed forces is our most important policy, and that sanctions only play a supporting role.
The second implication is long-term, once peace is established in some way. Especially if that peace is a frozen conflict, in which Putin claims victory by holding on to some Ukrainian territory, there will be pressure to keep the sanctions in place, to continue the war indefinitely by other means.
There will be an argument for doing exactly that, but we must be clear about the nature of the case: namely, that even in the absence of open war, Russia will remain a generational enemy to peace in Europe and a generational threat to American interests: making policies that diminish Russian wealth and power as a justified form of self-defense, both for Europe’s eastern borders and for Pax Americana in general.
The argument will be no Whether sanctions are likely to free the Russian people from Putin’s rule, or collective economic punishment is likely to pay off for the Russians themselves, come a hypothetical future revolution.
No, if we intend to wage economic war against Russia for a generation, we must be clear-eyed about the calculation. In the hope of making a dangerous great power as weak as possible, we will make it more likely that Putinism will rule for decades and that Russia will remain our deadly enemy for as long as anyone can reasonably foresee.