Hey Putin, Your Masochism Is Showing

The Russian president thinks the brutal economic beating his country is facing over Ukraine could ultimately work to his advantage. But he is sorely mistaken.

When the U.S. and its allies announced they would sanction Russia’s massive energy sector this week, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak issued his own threats. He warned that the banning of Russian oil “would lead to catastrophic consequences for the global market,” with prices that could reach $300 per barrel. But his most specific target was Germany, which has suspended certification of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. That decision, he asserted, gave the Kremlin “every right to take a matching decision” and stop natural gas flowing through the existing pipeline to Germany, effectively cutting the country off from its major supplier.

But, as any disinterested observer might say, “Wait a moment.” Russia is already squeezed by far more extensive sanctions than it ever expected, triggering the longest closure of the stock market in its history, a swan dive of the ruble, drastic restrictions on banks, the cancellation of most international flights, and a rush for the exits by Western firms as varied as McDonald’s and BP. Why would the Kremlin compound the pain by adding more sanctions, which will isolate the country even more and hit ordinary Russians much harder than ordinary Americans or Europeans?

On one level, this cut-off-my-nose-to-spite-my-face attitude is based on what Vladimir Putin believed was a safe assumption when he invaded Ukraine: Russians might suffer more economically for a while, but they can take it—they always have. By contrast, the U.S, Europe and others back down when their own interests suffer. After all, the Biden administration came into office eager to curtail U.S. production of fossil fuels to pursue its green agenda, while simultaneously appealing to Russia and others to increase their oil production to make up the deficit. It also promptly dropped the Trump administration’s efforts to block Nord Stream 2.

Even with the rapid reversal of some of those moves, Putin is probably still calculating that his threats to retaliate with almost anything up to nuclear war will soon silence those demanding more decisive actions. His KGB training and subsequent path to power deepened his conviction that he can continue to get his way, both at home and abroad, by instilling fear—always a dictator’s most potent weapon.

This time, however, he has already miscalculated to a large degree, as evidenced by the genuine shock and anger of Kremlin officials at the unprecedented scope of sanctions imposed so far. Putin’s expectations of a quick victory in Ukraine, coupled with almost as quick de facto acceptance by much of the rest of the world of his aggression, have evaporated in the face of Ukraine’s valiant resistance led by President Zelensky. All of which has put some backbone into its allies abroad, at least for now.

This means that Putin has to ensure that the Russians will tolerate their growing isolation and mounting hardships for longer than he, or they, ever expected. Based on my earlier experiences in Russia as a correspondent for Newsweek, I understand why he feels he can still maintain control of the situation. But he is now in the most perilous moment of his rule, with no guarantee that he can still produce the outcome he was expecting.

Putin is gambling that the blanketing of his countrymen with the same kind of grotesque propaganda that was the staple of Soviet rulers, while cutting them off from most other sources of information, will work. Russian forces in Ukraine, the current line goes, are only there to fight “Nazis” and all the reports of the bombing of civilian targets, including maternity hospitals, are lies; the true victims are ethnic Russians terrorized by evil Ukrainians.

To Westerners, it is astonishing that many Russians appear to accept such blatant falsehoods. But such gullibility predates even the Soviet era. Marquis de Custine, a Frenchman who traveled to Russia in 1839, wrote a wonderful account of his journey to the land of “an absolute government and a nation of slaves.” He added, “In Russia, fear replaces, that is to say, paralyzes thought…Silence is indispensable to oppression.”

In the early 1980s when I first lived in Moscow, this silence was far from absolute, but it was effective enough to keep most Russians in line. Many people accepted the claims by the Kremlin justifying its stranglehold of Eastern Europe and attempts to wipe out resistance to its occupation of Afghanistan, along with the dismal living standards in Russia itself.

When I traveled around the country, the notion that Russia always needed to protect itself against “fascist” threats appeared to have sunk in—and the bigger the Soviet empire, the more such threats ostensibly existed on its borders. “A Russian is a Russian,” Vladimir Parmenov, the mayor of Vologda told me, when I asked about the lack of butter and milk in his northern city which was in a once famous dairy region. “No nation suffered as much during the war as we did.”

In other words, past sufferings justified present sufferings, and Russian accept them all as par for the course.

But the silence of the Soviet era gave way to the more turbulent—and far more openly contentious—period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, the unraveling of the Soviet empire and the break-up of the Soviet Union itself. In theory, this offered Russians a chance to reassess their relationship to their rulers—and to the rest of the world.

For a brief moment, it looked like this could really happen. In 1993, Poland’s President Lech Walesa hosted his Russian counterpart Boris Yeltsin in Warsaw. The former Solidarity leader cajoled Yeltsin over a dinner of eels and vodka to accept his country’s aspirations to join NATO. The Russian leader publicly expressed his “understanding” at first, but then, under pressure from his outraged entourage, promptly reversed course.

The rest is history. The Kremlin has continued to depict the aspirations of its former vassal states to chart their own paths as mortal threats. Once Poland and others slipped out of its grasp, Ukraine became target number one. It’s worth remembering that the excuse for the initial attacks on Ukraine in 2014 was the signing of the European Union-Ukraine association agreement, hardly a threatening move. But to Putin, anything that allows Ukraine to prosper and develop deeper ties with the rest of Europe is threatening as it sets an example that Russians, who even during his reign have felt less isolated from the world than in the past, might try to emulate.

Now, Putin needs to isolate them further and inspire even more fear if he is to cling to power. He also is convinced he needs to crush Ukrainian resistance, no matter what the cost. Some Russians, even those who were once influential in the Kremlin, have their doubts about such a policy. A week ago, Andrey Kortunov, a foreign policy adviser who has usually defended Russia’s policies, admitted how surprised he was by Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and called for a rapid end to the conflict. The not-so-suble subtext: this was a huge mistake.

While outgunned, the Ukrainians know what they are fighting for—their homeland. Many of the conscripts Putin sent into battle did not know where they were going, and couldn't understand why they were put in harm’s way. Those stories are trickling back to their hometowns and villages, no matter how much the authorities try to suppress them. All of which inclines me to believe that Putin will eventually rue the day that he embarked on his latest bloody escapade. 

On a visit to East Berlin in October 1989, Gorbachev famously told East German leader Erich Honecker: “Those who don’t change in life are left behind.” The Berlin Wall collapsed the following month, toppling Honecker and his regime. To be sure, Gorbachev would soon find himself out of power as well, prompting Putin to conclude that more repression, not less, is the way to go. But countless strongmen before him have learned the hard way that, in the end, force alone is likely to backfire. He cannot count on the passivity of the Russian people—or even of those at the top who have so lavishly benefitted from his rule—forever. The bill will come due.