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3 March 2022

Do sanctions and soft power really work?

Would Putin really halt his invasion because Apple Pay is withdrawn from Russia?

By Mark Galeotti

“How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin supposedly once asked with dismissive contempt, referring to the Vatican’s lack of army. One could imagine Vladimir Putin’s lip curling as easily this week, after Apple announced it was withdrawing Apple Pay from Russia, and Disney suspended its new releases in the country.

Yet the Ukraine conflict is going to prove something of a test case for 21st century conflict, as hard power meets soft. This is an asymmetric struggle, in every sense, with the speed of a cruise missile pitted against the slow grind of cultural isolation and economic stagnation. Nevertheless, the battle is not as one-sided as warlords may think. 

Soft power, the use of cultural and economic influence, is really just the cuddly, peacetime version of political war, defined by the American scholar-diplomat George Kennan as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war”. It ranges from political alliances to propaganda, psychological operations to subversion. In that context, sanctions — economic warfare — are just part of the spectrum of “non-kinetic” forces being deployed against Putin’s Russia in an age when everything can be weaponised, from law to refugees.

Sanctions will not ground Russian bombers overnight, any more than banning athletes will send tank columns packing. But then, the aim of such measures is not to effect instant change on the battlefield but to grind away at a target’s will and capacity to resist. In the past they have rarely worked that well, but this is the first time they have been employed against a country not just as large as Russia, but one whose economy is inextricably linked to global supply chains and finance, with a population that very much regards itself as European.

Sanctions will starve an economy already in a state of near-stagnation of the credits and technology it needs to modernise. Sanctions degrade Putin’s capacity to field and rebuild his military. Likewise, locking Russia out of international organisations reduces both its prestige and its diplomatic muscle. Ukrainian resistance is probably the only thing that can halt Putin’s armies today but political war may help ensure he does not try again tomorrow.

The aim is also to bring political pressure to bear on the regime. The expectation is not that the masses will rise in protest because they can no longer watch Doctor Who, nor that Putin will experience a humanitarian epiphany at their plight. However, if sanctions successfully divide the elite and demoralise the security force on which Putin’s power increasingly rests, then they could have a real impact. 

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To do that, though, political war needs to be targeted as precisely as the regular kind. Believing that Putin will care if oligarchs lose a yacht here or a penthouse there is naive. Likewise, sanctions which impoverish a whole population tend to cohere them behind the regime, more angry at the foreigners causing them hardship than the regime the measures were intended to punish. These are as counterproductive as airline bans which prevent liberal Russians from fleeing or, yes, Disney’s embargo.

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