Western sanctions regime must be fundamentally revised because Russia is a mafia state, Gessen says.

The West’s sanction regime against Putin’s Russia has failed because it is based on the assumption that the Kremlin will respond as Western governments would rather than on a recognition that Russia today is a mafia state governed by an entirely different calculus, Masha Gessen says.

The Russian-American commentator argues that the West’s sanctions regime is based on the false assumption that Moscow will react to sanctions the same way it would in seeking to avoid the impact of the sanctions on Russia as a whole and thus raising the price gradually to force change.

But the Putin regime is “a mafia state” and responds entirely differently, Gessen says. It doesn’t care how hard the sanctions hit the population as long as they do not have a greater impact on the regime’s core members than the latter can extract resources from the Russian people to compensate.

Related: Sanctions on Russia are working, but they’re not enough

Sanctions based on the assumption that Russia is a normal state rather than a mafia one, she says, won’t work and haven’t. Putin has not changed course in any way since the sanctions began to be imposed. In fact, he has become more repressive – and even used the existence of the sanctions regime as a kind of justification.

What is required, Gessen says, is to build a sanctions regime based on that understanding and on the value of morality as a key factor in deciding what to do. That factor is typically dismissed in Western capitals by those who assume they “know how things really work” in the real world.

Related: Urging to reconsider Russia sanctions: peace at the cost of European integrity

But they are wrong for at least two reasons, she continues. On the one hand, the West’s strategic interests cannot or at least must not be separated from its values and morality. And on the other, the pursuit of Western interests by a policy that ignores values cannot work against “an immoral player” like Putin.

“Putin doesn’t care too much about what happens to the Russian economy – in fact, he understands that the deficit reinforces autocracy,” Gessen says. As a result, “he is not affected by broad sanctions. He does not care what happens to his underlings far down the chain of command, so ‘reasonable’ sanctions don’t impress him.”

For sanctions to work against him and his regime, the West must impose sanctions that hit those at the top first and foremost rather than on those which affect broad categories of the population; and it must do so in a massive way to start with rather than by any gradual increase as has been the case up to now.

“Sanctions must be directed against those in Moscow who have the most to lose,” Gessen argues, and “there is no excuse to allow a murderous and criminal regime to continue to use Western institutions … that enable them to continue their activities.” Their access to Western banks, property, residence permits and so on must be shut off.

Even the imposition of such morality-based sanctions won’t force Putin to change course, “but then this is no longer the goal” in the situation which is emerging, one that has three important features that must not be ignored in the West any longer.

First, it is now more difficult for the regime to continue to act as it does; and inflicting punishment on him and his immediate operatives will add to those difficulties. Second, seeing this, those the West needs to support, will conclude that they have been heard and are being supported. That in itself has real “political value.”

And third, including once again and very publicly morality as an element of its sanctions policies will strengthen democracy and thus strengthen the West at the same time. That will have a benefit not only for the foreign policy of Western countries but for their own domestic situations as well, Gessen says in conclusion.

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