Consistent polling that shows Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity strong in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis and the ensuing sanctions, which helped cripple Russia’s economy, suggest Western sanctions have been thoroughly ineffective. In fact, this phenomenon suggests Western sanctions have galvanized support for Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine and revitalized anti-Western sentiment while undermining the European economy.
Although Europeans recently agreed to extend their sanctions against influential Russians by another six months, the apparent ineffectiveness of sanctions bolsters arguments favoring an end to sanctions despite the ongoing Ukraine Crisis. Looking at the ability of the Islamic State to attract foreigners, young ones in particular, to their cause, the unusually strong support for Vladimir Putin can be explained in such a way that helps us engineer more effective solutions to Russian aggression as well as terrorist threats.
Messages, which give people a sense of control and make them feel valued, strongly resonate when they feel vulnerable, stifled, and powerless. Just as exciting, angry, and/or depressing music can honestly reflect the feelings of listeners, as well as intensify those feelings, causes like those of the Islamic State can do the same.
Meanwhile, it is important to recognize that our modern, highly political world has been blanketed with so much self-serving, biased-filled propaganda that it is often difficult to discern the true nature of conflicts. It is particularly difficult when misperceptions are the main source of knowledge about those involved in a conflict.
Because political leaders and national security officials across the globe tend to thoroughly vilify those they see as potential threats in order to push their views and agendas, instead of focusing just on their actual wrongdoing, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between trusted sources and actual villains in sheep’s clothing.
In the case of the Islamic State, disbelief about their atrocities, as well as the human tendency to rationalize the behavior of those we can relate to and we like, the Islamic State looks heroic for standing up to the Western-empowered dictators of the Middle East.
Western recruits feeling suppressed by their Western life, who see the Jihadist lifestyle through naïve, rose-tinted glasses, can easily be persuaded the cause of the Islamic State is a means to fight back against Western oppression, which they live and feel, and the oppression of Middle Eastern dictators, even though they are doing wrong by supporting the oppression of the Islamic State.
In the case of Russia, Putin’s support of Ukrainian rebels becomes heroic and patriotic as he appears to be standing up to Western interference. Although Russians may recognize Putin is a lying, oppressive, self-serving dictator, they view the West to be just as dishonest, oppressive, and self-serving when it comes to their mistreatment of weaker countries.
The difference between Putin and the West is that Putin’s job is to protect the Russian People as their leader. In other words, Putin is seen as mocking the West’s hypocritical dishonesty when it comes to government oppression, yet he is also seen as the one protecting Russians from Western oppression, which is seen as far more negligent the interests of Russians than Russian oppression.
In turn, calls to protect Russia from Western oppression and interference resonate well with patriotic Russians. It is, therefore, important to recognize the cultural identity of the United States is rooted in democracy and political freedom; whereas, countries like Russia have a rich cultural history that defines their cultural identify and leaves their shifting governing philosophy dependent upon shifting political fads.
Where Americanized cultures in Europe have largely assimilated the democratic ideals that define American culture, the incomplete Americanization of Russia has failed to cement those ideals into the minds of the Russian People. Consequently, Westerners need to address perceptions of Western oppression with honesty and demonstrate the West will respect the interests of the Russia People post-Ukraine Crisis in addition to those of Ukraine.
A large part of the solution hinges upon Western countries confronting their wrongs and their apparent wrongs, including an effort to better define when intervention is legitimate and when it is illegitimate. Targeting individuals with sanctions as a punitive measure for the disruptive policies of their government, for example, can easily be seen as self-serving and unjust. The practice must, therefore, be limited to clearly justified and appropriate cases.
There is also a different between punishing someone and not supporting his, or her, behavior. Although sanctions are punitive in nature and political leaders like to think they can be used to discourage rogue behavior, there is a long history of their growing ineffectiveness as punitive measures. Sanctions are, however, a means for governments and societies to demonstrate they will not support the destructive behavior of governments and individuals.
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