Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Taking on the Kremlin: It's Time for Something (Not So) Different

By Julie GokhmanPublished March 13, 2015

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The economic sanctions implemented by the United States and the European Union to punish Russia for its aggression towards Ukraine has caused more harm than good. A different policy, one brought back from the past, should be instituted in order to improve relations between the US and Russia and protect both Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
By Julie Gokhman, 03/13/15

Despite the current economic turmoil affecting Russia, a radical change in its government should not be expected any time soon.  According to a recent poll conducted by The Levada Center, Russian President Vladimir Putin's popularity currently stands at 86%. Another poll led by the Institute of Priority Regional Projects reveals that 73% of Russians believe that their country is experiencing an economic crisis.  While this data suggests that the Russian people have felt the effects of US and EU sanctions, Putin's high approval rating has been immune to these consequences.   According to Nikolai Mironov, the director of the Institute, "Despite the fact that people see the situation as a crisis, they don't believe that the administration is working badly." 

These two studies paint a picture that predicts even greater tension between the US and Russia in the future: the Russian people have been hurt by sanctions, but they are not blaming their president.  Further data from The Levada Center show that Putin's approval rating increased from 80% in March 2014, when the sanctions for Crimean annexation was first implemented, to 86% in February 2015.  In an attempt to punish the Russian president for his aggression towards Ukraine, the United States instead succeeded in encouraging his people to rally around him.  And if the ultimate goal of these sanctions was to protect Ukraine from its power-hungry neighbor, news from the United Nations human rights office do not paint a picture of success.  According to their report, hundreds of Ukrainians have been killed in fighting over the past few weeks. In addition, despite contrasting claims from the Russian government, the U.N believes that a "heavy flow" of weapons and fighters continues to come out of Russia.

Diplomatic talks between the U.S. and Russia thus far have not been effective in calming Putin's aggression.  The Russian people have been further alienated from the West since the implementation of the sanctions and the Ukrainian people still require assistance.  An entirely different approach must be taken, one that will lead the Russian people to support the West and demand that the Russian president concede to United States and European Union demands.  A policy that mirrors the Marshall Plan may offer the solution that the West is looking for.  Implemented after World War II, the Marshall Plan used an infusion of $13 billion dollars (the equivalent of $160 billion today) to European states for the purpose of rebuilding their economies and spreading democratic ideals.

Even before sanctions came into play, Russia's economy was struggling with stagnation and an insufficient labor force as a result of declining population growth.  A plan of providing economic aid that depends on cooperation from the Kremlin would improve the view that Russian citizens have of the United States and would ultimately decrease their alliance with Putin.  In 1991, then-president of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, wrote a piece for the New York Times that argued for a new policy, one very similar to the Marshall Plan, to encourage democracy in the former Soviet Union following the end of the Cold War.  But this secondary Marshall-esque Plan was not pursued and now the Russian government and its people view the United States as an adversary; perhaps if aid had been provided earlier, these two countries would be allies.

Economic sanctions have not done what they needed to do and US military involvement is not currently on the table.  While options are limited, it is still possible to protect Ukraine as well as other countries neighboring Russia that fear intervention from a power-hungry Putin.  With the new policy, which would create a friend rather than an even angrier foe, the West can regain the trust of the Russian people and perhaps they will decide for themselves that they have had enough of their current leader. While it can be difficult to find support for the idea of providing economic aid to an adversary, it is clear that aggressive, destructive action is not effective.  But there is another way.  The Marshall Plan, ultimately a success in the mission to spread democratic ideals, was the first proposal of its kind.  It was a risky opportunity that paid off; pursuing a similar strategy with Russia could offer similar benefits.