Are Western economic sanctions against Russia finally having the desired effect? In any case, Putin suddenly speaks of a “colossal amount of difficulties”. But the truth is, he just wants to lure us down a path where we can do the least harm to him

Ever since a natural gas supply crisis was feared for the coming winter, voices in Germany and other European countries have increasingly expressed skepticism about the sense and purpose of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia: if these sanctions were intended to reduce Russia’s ability to lead to block a war of aggression, they have so far had little discernible effect.

Had one promised too much from them? Was it even a mistake to engage in economic warfare with Russia when you were so dependent on Russian gas and oil supplies? Wouldn’t it be better to let economic exchanges continue and stay out of the Ukraine war or, if you didn’t want Putin to win this war, supply Ukraine with the necessary weapons?

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The tolerable unity of the West, which it had achieved since the beginning of the Russian attack, threatened to crumble under the impact of such questions.

It is all the more remarkable when Putin now speaks of a “colossal amount of difficulties” that have arisen for the Russian economy as a result of Western sanctions. One could almost think that he wanted to support the West’s policy of sanctions and call out to the West that its policy of economic decoupling from Russia is now having an effect.

When such conclusions come to mind, mistrust is of course indicated. It may not be an admission of problems at all, but a strategic maneuver with which Putin wants to lure the West onto a track he wants it to be on because that’s where it can do the least harm.

That cannot be ruled out, especially when one considers that Russia has been waging a propaganda war against the West for years, with the aim of politically undermining it and primarily targeting the mood of the population. The remark about the “colossal set of difficulties” the sanctions posed for Russia’s economy could hardly have been made without a look at their propaganda effect in the West.

But what could this effect consist of?

With more artillery systems being delivered to Ukraine recently, Ukrainian resistance on the Donbass front has stiffened and Russian attacks have stalled. Even more heavy weaponry from the west would likely enable the Ukrainian military to retake some of the lost territories. But the Europeans had long hesitated to supply heavy weapons to avoid an escalation of the war and had actually only begun to do so when economic sanctions had little effect and Russian troops pushed further and further.

The admission of economic difficulties as a result of the sanctions could be a maneuver to slow down the supply of heavy weapons and the flow of ammunition – because the sanctions were having an effect after all. In view of the Russian volts of the past few months, such an intention cannot be ruled out. Then Putin’s message would essentially be addressed to the political decision-makers in the West and to all those who had recently spoken out vehemently against the delivery of arms to Ukraine.

Of course, it could also be that the Russian leadership has prepared itself for a long-lasting war of attrition in Ukraine, in which it is counting on the West losing interest in further support for Ukraine after a while and Zelenskyj, if not giving up, I will nevertheless push for negotiations in which Russia can largely implement its ideas. The decisive step on this path would be to wear out the currently still high willingness among the population to support Ukraine – and what could be better suited for this than an interplay between the expectation of an imminent end to the war and their subsequent disappointment because the Russian side but not economically collapsed.

That means: Putin awakens hopes, only to then let them fail all the more drastically, he speaks of economic difficulties, only to claim soon afterwards that he has solved all the problems brilliantly. In this case, all citizens of Western countries would be addressees of the maneuver.

However, it could also be the case that the message about the economic difficulties is actually addressed to the people of Russia and that the aim is to get them in the mood for significant cuts in their standard of living in the coming weeks and months. In this case, the message would correspond to the real developments that will be felt by everyone in the near future. That would be a repetition of what happened in a similar form a few months ago, when the Kremlin, after never having said anything about its own losses, suddenly spoke of a significant number of casualties.

In Putin’s head: the logic and arbitrariness of an autocrat

The Western press immediately saw this as an admission of weakness, but it was merely a question of shifting the political semantics to the sacrificial, to the self-sacrifice of the brave, whose legacy must now more than ever be respected. One admitted one’s own high loss rates and at the same time made them a sign of the will to win. It could be similar now with the admission of a “colossal amount of difficulties” in the economic area: The amount of problems is addressed, only to be able to celebrate the magnitude of the will to win soon afterwards.

It is not (yet) possible to decide which of the three interpretations is correct. In any case, they are by no means mutually exclusive, but all three could have been targeted at the same time. Whether Putin’s statement about the difficulties resulting from the sanctions actually refers to serious problems in Russian aviation and weapons production or whether it is about general supply problems cannot be inferred from the admission itself. That will only become clear with the actual development in Russia.

In any case, it is reasonable to distrust such statements from the Kremlin; they could be propagandistic maneuvers used by authoritarian regimes to mislead the population of open societies. One thing is certain: whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine, the Russian propaganda war against Western societies will continue.

Herfried Münkler, born in 1951, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Many of his books are considered standard works, such as “The Great War” (2013), “The New Germans” (2016) or “The Thirty Years’ War” (2017). Herfried Münkler has received numerous awards, including the Science Prize of the Aby Warburg Foundation and the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Fellowship.