American Sanctions and Russian Authoritarianism

The Obama administration has implemented several rounds of sanctions against Russia.  The sanctions began in March, 2014, when the Obama administration froze the assets of 16 high-ranking Russian government officials, 4 businessmen associated with Putin’s ‘inner circle,’ several members of parliament, and the Bank Rossiya (also known as Putin’s Bank).  Since the sanctions began, the US and the EU have froze the assets of 150 individuals known to be closely linked to Putin or energy companies like Rosneft and banks that launder Russian money throughout the West.

Instead of levying broad brushed sanctions against Russia, President Obama decided to selectively sanction specific actors within the Putin regime.  These sanctions reflect the reality that Putin is no longer the leader a democracy but instead a leader of an authoritarian oligarchy that prioritizes the wealth and assets of those near him above the welfare of the Russian people.  In fact, according to the Democracy Index (a UK based research group) Russia has been downgraded to an ‘authoritarian regime’ after Vladimir Putin’s decision to run for an unprecedented 3rd term as president.  According to Democracy Index, Russia sits at 132nd on their list, or about 10 countries higher than Afghanistan.

In a typical sense, sanctions are used to coerce a government via the dissatisfaction and unrest brought about by its populace as a result of economic hardships.  Fortunately for the United States and unfortunately for Russians living outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg, the dramatic drop in the price of crude oil has severely weakened the Russian economy already.  And so, the US and the EU have decided to apply pressure where it hurts Putin the most, the pockets of his friends and business partners.

Despite the ratings of various democracy indices, if the United States thought Russia was a democracy they would exert more pressure on the local Russian people in order to bring about new candidates for president and a possible shift in their current foreign policy.  But this is not the case, and regardless of what most Russians want, elections have and will continue to be rigged, free speech will continue to be limited as the Kremlin continually seeks to undermine civic society in Russia today.

This idea, that Russia and more importantly Putin is an authoritarian oligarch is important to understand because it puts the United States (at least in the short term) in a troublesome position.  As an authoritarian leader, President Putin can take unilateral actions without pesky oversight by his Duma or constituents.  This is a problem for the United States because Putin can act quickly and decisively like when he played a part in Georgian war of 2008, annexed Crimea in 2014, or intervened in Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad.  He is opportunistic and willing to make relatively low cost bets in order to secure a greater sphere of Russian influence among formerly Soviet states, as well as work to continually undermine the authority and legitimacy of the United States.   But as with all things in international relations, these opportunistic moves have costs. And in future posts I look forward to outlining these costs.

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