Do You Want Putin’s Attention? Sanction Sport

Regardless of the outcome of tonight’s decision by the International Olympic Committee on whether to ban Russia for its alleged state-sanctioned doping program for its Olympic athletes, that scandal may present the United States with an opportunity to retaliate for its interference in the 2016 election.

If we’ve learned anything from the 2016 election, it is that people react to their feelings and emotions as much or more than their reason or pocketbook.

A clever meme can be a far more effective marketing or elective tool than a thoughtful article or speech.  Outrage, rumor and humor seem to go much farther than reason and logical argument. However, aside from military action, we tend to rely solely on economic incentives – sanctions – when we want to change the behavior of state actors in the realm of foreign policy.

There is a lot of reporting on whether or not sanctions work, and most conclude that they are far less effective than policymakers would like.  Efforts continue to develop methods of international coercion short of war.  These have included so-called smart sanctions, targeted sanctions, travel bans and asset seizures, among other things.  They make sense in theory but they rarely seem to get the attention of a population to the point where they force a behavior change on their leadership. 

Indeed, there are not many clear examples of successful sanctions.  Over time some efforts have seemed to pay off, while others less so.  Iran and North Korea have been under a sanctions regime for decades, and we are running out of things to embargo.  At best, economic sanctions are a factor among many in spurring change.  Most countries ignore them, undercut them or use them to rally their population against those enforcing the sanctions.  Sanctions against Japan in the 1930s may even have led to war.

Some targeted sanctions such as those in the Magnitskiy Act have drawn the ire  of the Kremlin.  However, the overall impact of the economic sanctions has driven Putin to double down on his attacks against the West.  He is more popular than ever at home, and he and his cronies apparently have no trouble increasing their personal riches.  Who cares if the country suffers?  Russians have proven themselves able to withstand far worse, for much longer.  In some ways, the sanctions provide Putin with a convenient enemy to blame for Russia’s myriad troubles.

It seems Putin will not alter his behavior unless and until we threaten something that really matters to him.  So far, however, the perceived downside risks have made the U.S. unwilling to take action to put at risk those things that matter to him.  We are hesitant to provide substantial support and military assistance to Ukraine, radically strengthen NATO military capability on his periphery, undertake debilitating cyber-attacks or seek to interfere in Russia’s upcoming election.

Maybe we should take a page from the populists who have increasingly won power in the U.S. and elsewhere, and think about how best to leverage actions that have a powerful emotional component.  Maybe we are approaching sanctions as representatives of an establishment elite that doesn’t truly understand what really incites public rage.  If we want to force action and change behavior, we should look for opportunities to hit where we can expect a visceral reaction – in the area of national emotions and feelings.  Russia’s use of racist and right-wing memes and exploitation of trolls to stoke inflammatory reaction suggests that they know how to hit where it hurts.  Pictures of Hillary Clinton fighting Jesus are hardly the stuff of economic theory.

From my time overseas, I’ve often seen countries react much more impulsively to perceived cultural slights than to economic and political policies aimed at them.  While economic sanctions can slowly squeeze an economy, actions that strike directly at national pride can get people out on the streets in short order.  While in the Balkans, I recall being nervous how people would react when we bombed the Serb forces in Bosnia.  Despite my worries there was hardly a whimper.  Everyday Serbs hardly seemed to notice and continued to engage in a routine and friendly way.  However, when Greek fans booed the Serbian national basketball team at a European tournament, all hell broke loose on the streets of Belgrade.  Rioters immediately attacked the Greek embassy with rocks and hammers, broke windows and set fire to cars.   

Similarly, violence erupted between Croatian and Serbian supporters during the European water polo championship in 2003, leading to a window-smashing attack on the Croatian embassy in Belgrade.  Fans of the two countries clashed in 2007 at the Australian Open tennis tournament, then collided again later that year during a water polo match in Melbourne.  Riot police became a familiar presence at games.  Soccer games between Iran and Iraq have become a venue for violence and mayhem, with riots breaking out on the streets of their capitals.  Indonesian citizens came out in force in reaction to stories that wealthy Malaysians were abusing Indonesian expat housekeepers.

In this regard, perhaps the recent Russian doping scandal might provide an opportunity to better influence Russian behavior than another round of economic sanctions that the Kremlin is already preparing to circumvent.  Cutting Russia off from international sporting and cultural events might be a new way to get their attention.  The average Russian citizen will probably not even be aware of new political or economic sanctions, but they will surely get the message if their beloved teams cannot participate in the Olympics, World Cup or European Hockey championships.

As highlighted in the recent documentary “Icarus,” the doping of Russia’s Olympic athletes is pervasive and State-sponsored.  By all accounts, Putin himself ordered the successor organization to the KGB to oversee the massive cheating effort in the lead up to the Sochi Olympic games.  A recent Washington Post op-ed noted that up to 99 percent of Russian athletes have taken performing enhancing drugs.  The effort, called “The Sochi Plan” included an elaborate scheme to transport and swap clean urine for athletes who were regularly ingesting drug cocktails.  The nation’s spy service was enlisted to surreptitiously break into sealed vials of collected urine at night when laboratories were closed.  Even Russian Paralympians were doping.

It was a national effort, and clearly undertaken with the notion that it was worth it – that sporting results were of critical importance to a country needing something in which to take pride.  If Putin was willing to spend a reported $50 Billion to build a world-class venue, and then to risk it all with a brazen effort to cheat, sporting success must be important to him.

I also recall the shared astonishment my colleagues overseas and I felt observing foreign leaders who were perfectly comfortable spewing venom and inciting their populations against the United States at the same time that they sent their children and families to the US to study and live.  Sanctions are usually at best an inconvenience for leaders like this (if not for their vulnerable populations).  The best way to get their attention would be to stop issuing education and work visas for their children.

The effect on popular emotions is well known to authoritarian leaders.  Indeed, Mr. Putin has already started a campaign to blame the U.S. for the International Olympic Committee investigation into Russian doping.  It is in his interest to pretend that it is all a U.S. ploy to derail the Russian elections, thus diverting attention from his missteps.  The Russian government is already gearing up its well-honed propaganda and deception tools to counter this threat.  For Putin to acknowledge that it could affect Russian Presidential elections is admission of serious concern.  He clearly undertook the doping program hoping that national pride in a successful Olympics would burnish his popularity and approval.  It seems to me that if we are going to be blamed anyway, we should jump in with both feet and hit him where it hurts.  A campaign to convince the world not to compete with serial cheaters would likely attack Russian national pride.  Of course, any punishment could simply be used to further rally the populace against the West.  However, while we can predict the response to further economic sanctions, the popular reaction to targeting symbols of national pride is something we cannot predict.  And, despots hate unpredictability.

If we as a nation expect to change behavior in others, we need to threaten something of consequence.  Few things inspire more public action than national pride.  Unconstrained emotions on the part of his citizens frighten Putin.  Demonstrations frighten Putin.  Lack of control frightens Putin.  If we truly want to get his attention, consider going after sport.

Image: Patrick Smith/Getty 

 

About the Author(s)

John Sipher

Director of Customer Success at CrossLead, Retired Member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Follow him on Twitter (@john_sipher).