What Is the Best Way to Tackle Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his annual end-of-year news conference on December 18, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters

You wouldn't know it to judge from Vladimir Putin's professional, experienced three-hour session with journalists December 18, but it has been a disastrous week for the president, for his small but influential elite coterie and for the 144 million Russians beyond the Kremlin walls.

Most Russians have found that their savings and their disposable cash are worth significantly less than they were at the beginning of 2014. Considering that 15 percent of Russians live below the poverty line, that its middle class takes up another 20 percent and that the vast majority of the rest of the population falls somewhere in between the two, this week has reawakened memories of the economic instability and widespread impoverishment in the 1990s.

Emergency measures appear to have halted the free fall, but the situation is still perilous because the underlying economic problems remain, in particular the overdependence on the price of oil (Putin's one-note self-criticism at his press conference, when he broke from blaming the West), the lack of investment and the absence of any credible strategy for addressing them.

Too many rubles spent on defense

The solution is a difficult one for the current leadership. Meaningful economic reforms would initially bring about even harsher living conditions for several years ahead. But they would also require political reforms that would ultimately undermine the Kremlin's model of statist power. An about-face on Ukraine would halt the sanctions, but it wouldn't come to grips with the problem and it will not happen anyway.

One option often mooted is to bring back Alexei Kudrin, the Western-friendly former finance minister, into the government. But Kudrin resigned precisely because he believed that the Kremlin was shoveling too much money into defense and not enough into pensions. Either Kudrin or Putin would have to compromise for this to work.

The Kremlin's solutions still appear to be technical adjustments rather than fundamental reform. As a result, the benefits will be limited and almost certainly inadequate to the challenge.

Targeting Russian elite is popular among Russians

In the West, Russia's most recent economic catastrophe is terrifying to many and met with satisfaction by others: just deserts for dismembering Ukraine and its indirect culpability in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17. That is perhaps understandable yet unworthy, because it affects those who were not responsible in far greater numbers than it affects those who were.

Western sanctions have not targeted Russia's elite nearly well enough; there, they would have a more punitive effect on decision makers but less punitive effect on most Russian citizens (yes, even if 85 percent of them support Putin's policies).

Indeed, while Russia's leader remains remarkably in vogue, his surrounding elite and the oligarchs have never been much liked. Targeting them would be a popular move with the Russian population at large, but targeting the wider economy may backfire.

Better-directed sanctions may—just may—have more effect, as they could also increase pressure on Putin, not so much to reverse course, which, as previously stated, seems improbable, but to make his position more uncomfortable and further limit his maneuvering freedom.

What if Putin were to be ousted?

The question then arises as to whether increasing pressure on Putin is even desirable. It's a fair question, as are the following ones: What if his position became untenable and he was forced out of office? Could there not be worse around the corner?

The answers are, of course, unknowable. There are four basic permutations: a better-behaved Putin, a worse Putin, a better-behaved replacement or a more frightening replacement. Nobody knows, but governments' inclinations are largely "better the devil you know."

There is no intellectual rationale for this, and Western inaction has consequences just as much as Western action (or sanctions) does. You can never prove an alternative history. Sanctioning Russia may prove disastrous. Or it could be a turning point for a better relationship. Putin's involuntary departure could herald worse—or it could be a new dawn.

In the absence of clear evidence, the logical approach is to abandon policies that have not worked over a period of time. What has definitely failed is the 20-year policy of drawing Russia into the wider international community without penalty if it contravenes the standards required of membership.

There are no certainties, but some clear messages would surely help: If you break club rules, there will be consequences; as long as you remain in Ukraine, sanctions will stay in force; and manifest lies about Western plots against Russia will be shown to be false. And finally, if you do decide to restart the long trek back to the (imperfect) West, we'll be your friend and help.

James Nixey is head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at London's Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs.