The Putin Paradox
Carl von Clausewitz is best remembered for the quip “war is diplomacy by other means”, and if such is true, then diplomatic action can be considered a form of war. This outlook fuels Vladimir Putin’s impression that a state of conflict exists between Russia and the West. Citing the eastward expansion of NATO, Russia under Putin has acted like an abusive ex-boyfriend toward ex-Soviet states. After the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, and the interference of American and British elections in 2016, Putin’s impression is certainly true. But because the nature of war in the modern era - specifically, the capacity for absolute destruction that we as a species now possess - makes outright conflict between Russia and a united West untenable, non-military actions will have to be taken to promote Western interests, much as Russia has weaponized social media.
The most effective tool that the West has utilized is the Magnitsky Act, which put targeted sanctions against specific powerful Russians. This act was put in place in 2012 in response to the 2009 death of an imprisoned Sergei Magnitsky, who was in jail for exposing corruption in the Russian government. The reason for Magnitsky’s imprisonment was because it threatened the system that Putin erected over the previous decade; the Russian government is effectively a political mafia with Putin as the Godfather and oligarchs as his capos. Putin allows the oligarchs profit off of their stranglehold on the Russian economy, and in return they do not deviate from whatever dictates Putin imposes on their industry.
This makes for a system where, though Russia is not a wealthy country, it is able to utilize its resources in a centralized, coordinated manner. Some form of corruption is inevitable in any government; but if knowledge of the depth of corruption inherent in such a system became public, the Russian people might withdraw their support from Putin and demand the downfall of the oligarchs. This would upend the entire system Putin has spent almost two decades to build and would not be considered an acceptable risk by Putin.
The Magnitsky Act has inspired similar legislation in Canada, the United Kingdom and the Baltic states. The pressure it brings on the Russian government is intense - oligarchs generally took the wealth they pillaged from the Russia and invested it in countries with rule of law, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. These sanctions froze all targeted oligarch’s assets; it also reduced the amount of foreign trade Russia had with the West, hampering their economy which was already struggling with low oil prices. The oligarchs are not pleased that their cash cow is drying up; worse for Putin is that the common people of Russia are wising up to the system. Putin’s decision to raise the retirement age and reduce pensions has gutted his support among the people.
Putin’s worst nightmare is that what happened to Gaddafi happens to him, and while superficially this may work in the West’s interest, we must also remember what happened to Libya after Gaddafi was sodomized and shot. Libya is currently a failed state with multiple factions contesting control, making money however they can to help supply their conflict. As terrible as that conflict is, we can take solace that no side has a supply of nuclear arms; that would not be the case with an anarchic Russia.
If Putin does fall from power, it is possible that someone else steps up and is able to balance the needs of the people with the greed of the oligarchs. But it is more likely that factions of generals, admirals, and oligarchs arise to promote their own power and wealth. This would put Russia’s sizable and widespread nuclear arsenal in the hands of whoever controls the weapons themselves, to use as however the owner may see fit. And while it may not be feasible for a presumptive warlord to actually use these nuclear weapons, the selling of one of these weapons to an extremist group to help profit their faction in the civil war is a non-zero possibility. This possibility would increase the longer the conflict goes on; war is a costly business after all.
And so we have a conundrum. A state of conflict exists that will only go away when Putin is out of power or knuckles under the pressure, but the entire Russian political system depends on Putin to function, and a defunct Russian government makes their weapons of mass destruction less secure. The adage that it is better to deal with the devil you know then the devil you don’t applies here, and the West must thread the needle - it has to apply enough pressure to convince Putin to stop trying to break the Western Alliance and reform the Russian Empire, but not so much as to make the oligarchs or people enraged enough to start a civil war.
It is times like these where the stability and capability of our own government is of paramount importance. Thankfully, we can take assurance that the President of the United States is absolutely, positively not compromised by Putin. Everything will be fine, believe me folks.