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No coup for Putin

Roman Goncharenko / gsw
July 28, 2014

Putin faces trouble at home after Western sanctions made oligarchs nervous, German intelligence officials have said. But DW's Roman Goncharenko doubts that the West's move will provoke a change of course in Moscow.

Vladimir Putin
Image: picture alliance / AP Photo

Five months - that's how much time the European Union let pass before following its words with actions. Finally, Europe decided to respond to Russia's Ukraine politics with tough economic sanctions.

Brussels was moved to act neither by the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea nor the poorly concealed war in eastern Ukraine that killed hundreds of Ukrainians. Instead, the impetus came from the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane with nearly 300 people on board - for which pro-Russian separatists and their helpers in Russia clearly bear the responsibility.

Oligarchs' influence

The confrontation between the West and Russia is now at a turning point. Until now, Russian politicians have mockingly dismissed Western sanctions such as account freezes and travel bans. They were seen as trifles. Now, Europe is getting out the big guns and wants to use sanctions against Russian companies to force Moscow to leave Ukraine alone.

Roman Goncharenko
DW's Roman GoncharenkoImage: GMF/Roman Goncharenko

Sources within Germany's federal intelligence agency (BND) claim that, as a result, a conflict is emerging between political hardliners and the country's business elite when it comes to influencing President Vladimir Putin. That information is from newsmagazine "Der Spiegel," which also reports that powerful Russian oligarchs are worried about their businesses, their Cote d'Azur villas and the billions they have in Western bank accounts.

Will the oligarchs be able to force Putin to give in? Would they perhaps even topple his government - similar to the removal of communist leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1964? Those who believe so are naive.

Putin has built up his system of rule for more than 10 years. It's his people who occupy key positions, and that's also true of industry. Politicians and oligarchs know they're risking their lives if they come out against the head of his state and his closest confidantes.

Long before the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin was preparing for a confrontation with the West. State officials were forbidden from having holdings abroad, making them less vulnerable to Western sanctions.

Burned bridges

Perhaps Putin will decide to change course on Ukraine of his own accord? That certainly won't be the case. He has already burned his bridges, and there's no turning back. The propaganda machine is going at full speed: Russia intends to maintain its influence over Ukraine at any price, even if that spells war and Russia's isolation from the international community.

The confrontation with the West is being stylized as an epic struggle of good against evil. If Putin were to give in to the pressure of the sanctions, he'd be seen as weak. From his perspective, that would be political suicide.

As such, Putin can be expected to strike back in the coming days and weeks. He will try to do damage - heavy damage - to the West. That could mean sanctions against European and American companies in Russia or a stop to oil and gas deliveries. In Ukraine, too, he is likely to expand his aid to the separatists by way of more soldiers and more weapons. An open invasion - dressed up as a peace mission - could even follow.

The EU doesn't want to provoke that response, which is why it has been holding back on sanctions. But the targeting of the Malaysia Airlines flight left the bloc no other choice. As long as Putin is in power, he will continue his campaign in Ukraine. Europe and the world must finally come to understand that. Sanctions are the proper way to force Russia's hand, but it could take years.

Roman Goncharenko was born in Ukraine and is a member of Deutsche Welle's Europe department.

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