Economic Sanctions versus Sacred Values

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Economic sanctions will not deter Russia, Peter Turchin says, because it is defending its sacred values:

Apart from a small and largely powerless pro-Western opposition, the Russian political class is solidly behind Putin on the issue of Ukraine. The great majority of politicians from all parties represented in Duma (the Russian Parliament) and most political commentators perceive the post-Soviet history of NATO-Russia relations as a relentless drive by NATO to encircle and isolate Russia; a kind of the “winner-take-all” policy. Russia has already went to war in Georgia in 2008 to indicate that are some “red lines” that it will not tolerate crossing. The stakes are even higher in Ukraine — a much larger country inhabited by millions of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. Very importantly, Crimea is also the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. Crimea, thus, is of huge geopolitical importance to Russia, serving as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and the only naval port open year-around. Their fears may be exaggerated, but the political class perceives returning Crimea to the Russian orbit as a necessary condition for retaining the status of a great power, which is for many an existential issue.

If the geopolitical aspect has been discussed by many American commentators, the second fact, sacred values, has been completely ignored. But it shouldn’t be, because in many ways it is of the overriding importance.

Crimea is of a huge symbolic significance to the Russians. As I described in my book War and Peace and War, for centuries the Crimean Tatars were a dagger in the Russian southern “underbelly” — raiding, looting, killing, and enslaving millions of Russians (“millions” is not an exaggeration).

It took three centuries for Russia to push the steppe frontier south to the point when it finally encompassed Crimea. Crimea was ceded to Russia in 1774 by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Crimea, and particularly Sevastopol (founded by Catherine the Great), were associated with resistance against external enemies – during the Crimean War and World War II (in both cases, Russian historical books refer to the “heroic defense of Sevastopol”). When the Soviet Union collapsed, the great majority of Russians felt that it was a great mistake to allow Crimea to be retained by Ukraine (it was gifted to Ukraine by the Communist leader Khruschev in 1954 as “a token of eternal friendship”). So a return of Crimea to Russia is perceived as righting a historical wrong. Crimea to Russians is what Scott Atran calls a “sacred value.”

Threatening economic sanctions when sacred values are in balance is counterproductive. Such a threat is actually much more likely to stiffen the resolve to defend them at all costs.

As a result, Putin’s policy towards Ukraine is very popular among the Russians, which includes, importantly, both his support group among the elites (the so-called siloviki, recruited from the military and intelligence agencies) and just common people. Judging from the comments in the blogosphere, he is regaining support even among many people who have been quite critical of the “Putin’s regime” because it is broadly perceived as rather corrupt and primarily serving bureaucrats and their businessmen cronies. These people are very supportive of “returning Crimea to us.” Some even say that if Putin returns Crimea to Russia, they will forgive him all.

If Putin retreats on this issue, on the other hand, he will lose all credibility among large swaths of the Russian population. And everything suggests that Putin is very careful to retain and nurture his high approval rating. So a recent jump in the approval rating from 60.6 percent in January to 67.8 percent in March suggests that he would be quite immune to the threats of economic sanctions.


  1. Bruce says:

    If the Russophile Ukrainians move to Crimea, Putin’s heirs will be dealing with an unfriendly neighbour holding one shore of their major river.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    In this case, Putin is the (relative) good guy. We have just engineered a violent coup that overthrew the legitimate and democratically elected government of the Ukraine. Yes, Yanukovych is a thief and authoritarian, but so is Obama, Clinton, etc etc.

    The reality is that the US is the evil empire, violent, corrupt and extremely aggressive. We are on the wrong side of history. We are the main source of violence and instability in the world.

    Russia is being encircled. Its allies are being conquered or destroyed one after another: Serbia, Iraq, Libya, Syria and now Ukraine. Ukraine, like Serbia, will be partitioned, only the border is yet to be decided. Possibly the Dnieper River. Belarus is next.

    I am 70 years old. All my life I have been a patriot. Now I hate the regime in Washington. Not just Obama, but every single one of them, Democrats, Republicans, elected, appointed, civil servants, military, executive, legislative and judiciary. Every single one of them is a violent criminal, not one exception. And this has been the case for decades.

    Nowadays, I root for Iran and North Korea.

  3. Toddy Cat says:

    All my life, I’ve hated, and still hate, Communism, so I can’t root for the Norks, but other than that I can sympathize, Mr. Sykes. Putin is certainly not someone to be admired, and after the 1930′s Terror-Famine, I can understand how many Ukranians feel about Russia. But the US and the EU precipitated this crisis, egged on the opposition, and are feeding paranoia in Russia, which will have grave future repercussions, for us and for the World. The leadership class in the US and EU seems literally mad, and they have not gotten a single thing right since 1989. Time for a reboot.

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