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Sanctions Could Weaken Vladimir Putin's Renewed Popularity In Russia


Maybe many of you have been spending time as we have in recent weeks trying to make sense of so much upheaval, death and violence. For one thing, we're trying to understand the conflict that has raged in Ukraine. It has exposed new tensions between the West and Russia - almost the feeling of a new Cold War. Julia Ioffe, who writes about Russian for The New Republic, this hasn't surprised here.

JULIA IOFFE: If anything, the last 20 years were an anomaly where the U.S. and Russia have had this kind of friendship and this kind of - at least on paper - striving for common values. Russia is, at its core, an empire, and it's one whose values completely don't line up with American values at all.

GREENE: Which may help explain the hard-line stance Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken against the West. That stance has boosted Putin's popularity at home. But Julia Ioffe says that might not last. She says Putin rose to power promising to restore Russia's prestige abroad and make life better for Russian citizens.

IOFFE: And the core of the pact was you stay out of politics and I'll make your life good. And so when he came to power in 2000, the GDP per capita was about $1,700. Last year, it was over $14,000.

GREENE: Russians, in general, are doing much better - better standard of living.

IOFFE: They're doing much, much better. And they've also delivered on their side of the compact. They've stayed out of politics.

GREENE: There've been protest but not that big - nothing that we'd call a revolution.

IOFFE: That's right. That's right.

GREENE: So what is happening now that causes you to think he could be weakened? Is it the economy? And is it these sanctions that we've seen the West impose that might be responsible here?

IOFFE: So even before the mess in Crimea and eastern Ukraine began, the Russian economy started flat-lining. The Ministry of Economic Development has been using the word stagnation, which is a very potent word because that's one of the things that failed the Soviet Union. And now top of that, you have very severe sanctions that affect financial sectors, energy sectors, the defense sectors. And if you see those being hit on top of an already weak economy, you'll see the effects of that come down to the population. And that means that Vladimir Putin will be in a violation of the pact - that, you know, if people's lives suddenly get worse, we could see a lot of unrest.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about some of what Putin has done over the last year. I mean, one recent move is he decide to impose kind of counter measures counter sanctions - against the West, you know, basically limiting some types of food and other products and luxury good that could come in from Europe. I mean, in a way, couldn't that backfire and hurt Russians more than actually Western countries?

IOFFE: When these measures were introduced, a lot of Russians were dumbfounded. And they said it's hard to believe that these sanctions weren't introduced by the West but by our own Russian government. That's dangerous about them is, you know, even if the Kremlin thinks that it's hitting at the people who consume, you know, Western imported foods like prosciutto and mozzarella and Norwegian salmon or, like, the upper-middle-class - the people who protested against him two years ago - the problem is it also raises food prices in the rest of the country. And so what we've seen in the couple of weeks since these measures were introduced - food prices have already spiked by double digits, and people are posting pictures of empty store shelves all over social media. And that's important because Putin was supposed to be an explicit answer to the chaos and the hunger of the 1990s.

GREENE: Let me also ask you about Ukraine and the messy situation there. I mean Crimea - when Russia took Crimea, there were thousands of people in Red Square celebrating this big geopolitical victory. Right now the situation seems messier. I mean, what can he accomplish here, if anything, that will sort of keep that pact true for him? - that, you know, Russians will see their country as still dominant and relevant.

IOFFE: Well, you know, I think, originally, the goal in eastern Ukraine was to stabilize Kiev and to make Ukraine an unsavory partner for Europe and America. The problem is this has been going on for months now and Putin has kind of painted himself into a corner here where he doesn't seem to have destabilized Kiev quite enough. If anything, he's given the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, the kind of freehand and national unity that no Ukrainian leader has had since Ukrainian independence in 1991. And he can't really back out of it at this point. You know, and they're losing a lot of ground to the Ukrainian military. So he has to keep arming them - keep intervening surreptitiously but can't really get out of it. Vladimir Putin isn't very good at thinking long-term. So started this mess, but he didn't, necessarily, start it with an exit strategy prepared.

GREENE: Julia, thanks very much.

IOFFE: Thanks.

GREENE: That's Julia Ioffe, a senior editor at The New Republic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.