Putting Putin out of business - The Hill

by Gary M. Shiffman, PhD, on Apr 3, 2022 1:29:04 PM

This article was originally published in The Hill. Click here for the full article.

Putin.2023Asatur Yesayants/Shutterstock.com

U.S. presidents have sought the ouster of other world leaders in the past. Roosevelt teamed with Churchill and backed General Eisenhower to lead an allied military force to end Adolf Hitler’s evil rule. Today, President Biden and many other world leaders have unified around some policies to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s despotism. Sanctions and military equipment – sanctions against the Russians and arms for the Ukrainians – are the tools of choice today. From FDR to Biden, how has the world changed? 

Two weeks before Biden’s comment on ending Putin’s power, the internet made clear how the world has changed. On “Channel One Russia,” a news editor struck a blow against Putin, and the world saw herMarina Ovsyannikova interrupted a live broadcast to protest Putin’s war on the dominant national TV network reaching 98 percent of the country, and via the internet to people around the world.

There exists an entire realm of study and practice for influencing human behavior; the science behind marketing can lead you to switch phone carriers or deodorants, for example. I have spent over two decades bringing the same behavioral science to national security. It applies to how we craft policies toward Russia today. Senior officials talk about the tools at their disposal: military assistance to Ukraine, trade sanctions and banking prohibitions. Focusing on the scope of sanctions, however, is like losing sight of the target when nocking an arrow into the bow. The better framing is to ask the behavioral question: What will change human behaviors to end Putin’s invasion of Ukraine?

Since a modern-day Operation Overlord will not happen, economic policies will dominate. Get policies right and perhaps achieve policy goals; get them wrong and impose a financial cost without corresponding benefit. According to my colleague Juan Zarate, the U.S. and Europe have unleashed historic sanctions against Russian banks, Russian companies and dozens of Russian elites. The sanctioning of the oil and gas industries, despite possible global inflationary impact, is now being debated. NATO providing air superiority over Ukraine, despite likely NATO-Russia direct military engagement (picture Russian MiGs and U.S. F/A-18s dogfighting over Ukraine), is also a near-term possibility. 

In a new hyperconnected cyber-enabled world of warfare, individuals like Marina Ovsyannikova can impose a large cost on power monopolizers like Putin. Instead of Overlord as the analogy, think instead of revolution; perhaps future historians will liken her act to the “shot heard round the world” 

Prior to the 1980s, policies typically sanctioned an entire country (e.g. embargoes of Cuba and North Korea). The theory went like this:  Common people hurt by sanctions would direct their anger at the dictator, organize and protest at the capital, causing a change in policy or a change in leadership. Essentially, peasants would grab pitchforks, storm the castle and overthrow the ruler. 

The “pitchfork” theory of economic sanctions, however, almost never worked. Fidel Castro, for example, suffered less financial impact than the Cuban public. His power relative to the rest of the world may have suffered, but his power on the island increased. He used this increase in relative power to purchase the loyalty of other elites and, through further oppression, limit civil society organizing and protesting. The peasants and their pitchforks never stood a chance.  

After many passionate sanctions debates throughout the 1990s, which I took part in as a U.S. Senate staffer and then authored a book on the topic, the policies changed. U.S. and world leaders began implementing “targeted” sanctions. The financial impact decreased significantly, and the impact was felt by very specific people and companies. I supported this change as a way to better impact human behavior. However, constraining U.S. firms in the globalizing economy of the 1990s, and not just policy efficacy, played a role in these changes also. 

Sanctions now target elites and therefore protect the broader population from direct financial impact. The idea is to anger the elites so the price of their loyalty increases while supporting civil society, further decreasing the relative wealth of the autocrat. Actions under these policies include: freezing select bank accounts, seizing yachts and denying visas to travel for nice vacations and college visits. 

Sixty senators led by Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar to death. The “Brutus” theory relies on this truth: An unpopular leader needs loyalists to keep the masses down. Targeted sanctions drive up the costs of purchasing loyalists.

To end Putin’s power, put him out of business. Without putting allied militaries on the ground, incentivize the people already there. Weaken him relative to the populations who oppose Russian military aggression. First, this means avoiding policies that would weaken the Russian public more than the elites — keep relative power in mind. When considering broad banking (e.g. SWIFT) and energy sector sanctions, acts which impact the larger population, do this necessary analysis. Draw a balance scale on a nearby white board and build arguments around who gains, the elites or the people. Does the balance tip to the right or left pan? 

Second, continue to increase the price Putin pays for loyalty. Inspiring defection among his inner circles accomplishes many goals. It further weakens his power relative to the general population. It compels his loyalists to talk to the boss about changing his behavior. It also causes conversations and perhaps plans to remove him. 

Third, expand support to the military of Ukraine; this further increases Putin’s cost of remaining in power.  

But the non-military policy options in 2022 far exceed those of the 1990s. McDonalds, Starbucks and other top companies choosing to close in Russia helps cut through government lies without tipping the balance toward the tyrant. Generation Z tends to oppose the war, wants to travel freely around the globe and easily evade government-imposed internet restrictions. Twenty-something bloggers continue to build global communities from inside Russia. 

Influencing behavior is the goal of economic policies, and President Biden and his counterparts have worked together in historic fashion. But the internet has shifted the very nature of human communication since our sanctions debates of the 1990s. I’ve begun to believe that the balance of relative power comes from the great democratization of voice amplification in cyberspace. Putin has wealth, wealthy friends and a massive military, but he cannot stop a legion of young adults on their smartphones. Russian citizens opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, amplified by like-minded people around the world, make change feasible. And that creates a tipping point for the end of Putin’s power. 


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