Only Putin knows what happens next

The Russian president also has practical and self-interested reasons to pursue an ongoing cycle of military confrontation with the West in general and with Ukraine in particular. Remember, most Kremlin policy is directly informed by the fact that Putin, in the end, sits atop a government that is in effect a mafia.

This matters because it is yet another aspect of Russian foreign policy that is beyond American control. If Americans were truly willing to go after the Russian elites who work below Putin, the United States might have leverage, but this would mean outing the locations of oligarchical wealth, the freezing of assets in places like London (which is practically a Russian bank vault these days), and as my Atlantic colleague David Frum has suggested, perhaps even uprooting children from elite Western schools and sending them home.

A warning, however, is in order. In the words of Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables, if you’re going to open the ball on these people, you must be prepared to go all the way. An escalation against Russian interests in America wouldn’t be a polite game of diplomatic and financial tit-for-tat. If the Western powers intend to pressure the Russian elites to dissuade Putin from war, then they’d better mean it. They must vow that violence in Ukraine will mean sleepless nights not only for Putin, but for everyone around him, including the underbosses who do not have Putin’s considerable political and financial resources to protect themselves and who thus will face real costs and personal losses.

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