Aleksandr Podrabinek: On Sanctions – and the Danger of Overdosing

30 May 2022

by Aleksandr Podrabinek

Source: Radio Svoboda

Any medicine becomes poison in excessive doses. This goes for politics as well as medicine. Western sanctions against Russia, despite being beneficial overall, can give rise to the opposite effect if used excessively and indiscriminately.

For 20 years, the West turned a blind eye to the vagaries of Russian authoritarianism, preferring to accommodate Putin rather than quarrel with him. Friendship with the bad boys from the Kremlin promised trade benefits, cheap energy, and relative stability on the European continent. Some Western politicians even managed to organize their personal affairs — and personal stability cannot be discounted either.

Now that the many years of complacency and leniency toward tyranny have turned into a bloody war with Ukraine, the West is hurrying to make up for lost time. Sanctions against Russian are pouring out like from a cornucopia, and their effect is finally being felt, despite the delay putting them in place. Better late than never, though.

Meanwhile, the hullabaloo with which the West is implementing its sanctions policy is like the old joke about the unsuccessful surgeon who operates for a long time on a patient with appendicitis, can’t find the ill-fated appendix, and finally slashes the patient lengthwise and crosswise with his scalpel, all the while lamenting hysterically, “Nothing’s working!”

By desperately wielding his scalpel in the OR, the doctor may well cut out the appendix accidentally, too, but whether the patient will be better off as a result is a big question. In our case, the difference between a tidy operation and scalpel slashing lies in the difference between sanctions against a country and sanctions against its leadership.

The problem is by no means that ordinary citizens will suffer from broad sanctions against Russia; they, too, bear their share of responsibility for their lack of courage and their obedience to the usurpers of power. Of course, it’s hard to ask people to sacrifice by opposing a dictatorship, but they are going to have to answer for this nevertheless. Actually, inconveniences like rising prices, the economy’s collapse, difficulties with banking transactions, restrictions on visiting many countries, and foreign companies’ departure from the Russian market are all trivial compared with what the Ukrainians have had to endure since the Russian army’s invasion of their country. On that backdrop, it’s awkward for Russia’s inhabitants to be talking about the burdens of war.

Nor is the problem that even those who left Russia out of political considerations are suffering from Western sanctions. Ultimately, they are no less to blame for the dictatorship’s entrenchment than are those who remained in the country. Fleeing a dangerous Russia for a safe West gives them no advantages whatsoever and does not free them from our common guilt. Maybe even the other way around.

The problem is that some sanctions play into Putin’s hand. In order to understand this with full clarity, we have to turn to the country’s recent history. Hardly anyone still harbors doubts that Putin and his circle are trying to restore the Soviet system, to build USSR 2.0. The restoration of totalitarian ways best corresponds to the goals and methods of present-day Russian policy. Everything that leads to totalitarianism is welcomed by the Kremlin; everything that inhibits it, condemned.

A country’s isolation from the surrounding world is one of the basic features of a totalitarian regime. Cutting off Russia from “Western influence” is an actual Kremlin objective that no one is even trying to hide anymore. Think of how we lived in the USSR: isolation from Western culture; a ban on free book publishing; jamming Western radio; no telephone communications with the outside world; a ban on using foreign currency; an “iron curtain” at the Soviet borders. For Putin, these are all attractive goals, models for emulation.

The rejection of cultural exchange shuts off Russia. The rejection of visits to the country by Western performers shuts off Russia. The rejection of Western writers publishing in Russia shuts off the country. The departure of telecommunications companies from the country and the impossibility of using them shuts off Russia from the world. The ban on Russians entering Western countries becomes a prototype for an “iron curtain.” The educational implications of these measures for the ordinary “man on the street” are outweighed a hundredfold by the benefit these measures bring to the cause of restoring totalitarianism in Russia. Should we be helping Putin do this? Should we be hastening Russia’s movement toward a totalitarian condition and a closed society?

Maybe it’s better to inflict surgical strikes at the sensitive points of Russian authoritarianism rather than get carried away carpet bombing all targets indiscriminately? The Kremlin is happy to cut off its nose to spite its face. Does that mean the West has to do the same thing?

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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