MOSCOW —When, earlier this year, policy experts suggested that the aggression against Ukraine would be the undoing of Vladimir Putin’s regime, they could not have imagined the speed with which the Kremlin will be sowing the seeds of its own destruction. As Russian analyst Maxim Samorukov has noted, dictatorships often get away with the severest repressions at home—as long as they do not attempt to upset the international order. Vladimir Putin has stepped over the line. His chosen path of confrontation with the entire Western world, his regime’s blatant disregard for international law—accompanied by lies and hypocrisy on a scale not seen since the Soviet days—has already resulted in hard-hitting US and EU sanctions not only on senior Kremlin figures, but also on state-connected banks and corporations.
Yet the harshest sanctions against Russia were introduced by Vladimir Putin himself—and, unlike US or EU sanctions, they target millions of ordinary Russian citizens. On Wednesday, the Kremlin leader signed a decree prohibiting or limiting food and agricultural imports from countries that have joined sanctions against Moscow, which includes the entire European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Norway. Given that imports account for up to 30 percent of all retail food sales in Russia—including 60 percent of beef, 50 percent of cheeses, and 35 percent of pork—it will not be long before the new Kremlin-imposed sanctions will be felt by tens of millions of Russian consumers. Russian blogs and social media are bursting with predictions—some joking, some gloomy—about the impending return of Soviet-era food shortages, long lines, and rationing. While this may not be an immediate prospect, fast-rising prices and the disappearance of many familiar consumer products to which Russians have become used since the onset of the free market in the 1990s will soon become a reality.
The Kremlin is playing with fire. In the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Russians went to the streets to protest against Communist Party rule, it was the combination of political demands to end totalitarianism and protests against economic misery that provided the fatal blow to the Soviet regime. The 2011–2012 “winter revolution”—mass middle-class protests against Putin’s election fraud—lacked the economic and social component that could have helped it succeed across the country. It seems that the Kremlin is determined to remedy that shortcoming.