Even as the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine appears to be holding (for the moment), the United States and European Union are ratcheting up already-painful economic sanctions against Russia. On Friday, both Washington and Brussels plan to target new measures against Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors, adding a ban on advanced energy technology that is intended to sap Russia’s long-term position in the global energy market.
These new moves will increase the pain that Moscow is suffering to unprecedented levels. The technology ban, for instance, while not expected to have an immediate effect on Russian oil production, is projected to cut into Russia’s ability to sustain and increase its output five to 10 years from now.
The Kremlin certainly deserves what’s coming its way—and more. But punishment is not a strategy. It all has the ring of déjà vu all over again, and is fraught with unintended consequences reminiscent of Western policies toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Western governments had better think about ways in which these sanctions could backfire—with dangerous outcomes nobody seems to be contemplating.
One of the stories about the end of the Cold War and the causes of the Soviet collapse has William Casey, President Reagan's hawkish CIA director, asking the Saudis in the early 1980s to increase their oil production in order to drive down the price of oil, then the principal Soviet export, and thus bankrupt the Soviet Union. The Saudis reportedly complied, the price of oil collapsed and the rest is history.
No matter how implausible and simplistic, the idea that the West, primarily the United States, is responsible for the Soviet collapse and Russia’s misfortunes in the years that followed, is still firmly entrenched in the collective memory of the Russian elite, as well as the general public. Although memoirs by former Reagan/Bush era officials paint a very different picture, the notion that the United States actively sought regime change in the USSR has become a cornerstone of the Russian revanchist narrative—a narrative that fueled Vladimir Putin’s rise.
Today, many in Moscow remain convinced that regime change is Washington’s ultimate objective. They view Western support for the revolution in Ukraine—allegedly engineered by Western spies and NGOs—as but an intermediate step toward similar actions against Putin’s government in Russia. If none other than former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski—who is widely respected in Russia as a leading American foreign policy thinker but has also been known as a major hawk since the Cold War—has declared that supporting Ukraine is key to promoting change in Putin’s Russia, then clearly Russia is the next target for Western-engineered subversion. Western sanctions are interpreted in Moscow not simply as an instrument designed to change Russian policy in Ukraine, but as something far more sinister—to weaken Russia, to undermine its government, to instigate a popular uprising, to overthrow the Putin government, to install a puppet regime in Russia. In July, Putin told his security council that Russia’s foreign enemies are trying constantly to undermine Russia under the guise of democracy promotion. Such “color revolutions,” he said, will not work in Russia—though he probably has his doubts.
All of this may seem far-fetched and a product of Russian paranoia, but truth is beside the point. If the idea of U.S.-backed regime change in Russia becomes an article of faith in Moscow, the negative reaction could last far longer than Putin’s regime, with dire long-term consequences for relations between the West and Russia. If Washington and Brussels continue to raise the stakes with new sanctions, they could by themselves escalate the crisis far beyond Ukraine.
Russian suspicions are not entirely without merit. The United States has long made support for democracy a cornerstone of its policy toward Russia. The West endorsed anti-Putin protests in 2012. U.S. government officials and NGOs, including some supported with American taxpayer dollars, have been sharply critical of the Putin government for its undemocratic practices and have essentially made clear that the only way the United States and Russia can have partner-like relations is if Russia becomes a democracy—which to Russians (especially those surrounding Putin) means regime change.
That wouldn’t be so terrible, some might argue. But we should be careful what we wish for. In 1985, when Casey’s alleged intervention with the Saudis resulted in an oil glut, nobody predicted that six years later the USSR would be dissolved. Six years is just within the five to 10-year target timeframe of the present sanctions on the Russian energy sector.
Russia is the world’s largest country, home to dozens of distinct ethnic groups spread over multiple time zones and administrative divisions. Many of them pushed the boundaries of their autonomy and challenged the authority of Moscow in the 1990s, when Russia’s economy collapsed and its politics was in turmoil. Chechnya went further and declared independence, leading to a bloody war in the Caucasus.
Today, does the West want to weaken Russia to the point of it breaking up? Does the West want to deal with several Russias? Which ones will get the nuclear weapons? Which ones will accede to the nuclear treaties and which ones will not? Europe’s trade with Russia exceeds $400 billion annually. How much of it is Europe prepared to give up?
Granted, a breakup of Russia is a far-fetched idea. But the idea that Putin will not be in the Kremlin forever is not. What would his successor look like? Putin is no peach, but if current hostilities endure and sanctions grow more painful, its possible that the next Russian leader could be more anti-Western and recalcitrant than he is. And that is an outcome no one wants.