The Power of Stigma

Voting at the United Nations General Assembly, New York, October 2022 David 'Dee' Delgado / Reuters
Voting at the United Nations General Assembly, New York, October 2022. David 'Dee' Delgado / Reuters

Pariah status is a powerful motivator in foreign affairs. Being expelled by an international community of peers can irreversibly damage the reputation of countries and individuals alike. Yet the impact of stigma remains underappreciated by policymakers and scholars. Many Western commentators have been skeptical about the individual sanctions imposed on Russia’s oligarchs following the invasion of Ukraine, which included freezing assets, blocking transactions, and banning travel. Early in the war, the economist Robert Reich wrote that it was “proving difficult to use sanctions on specific oligarchs to get Putin to stop”, arguing that such figures don’t wield enough influence over the Kremlin to directly affect policy.

This analysis misses the purpose of stigma-based sanctions. Unlike traditional economic or political sanctions, which seek to coerce or punish governments and thus change their conduct, status-based sanctions are designed to destabilize rogue regimes by fragmenting the interests of elites. The objective is not to produce a specific change in regime conduct but, rather, to compel elites to distance themselves from the regime and withdraw their unwavering public support, shattering the illusion of control that sustains strongmen such as Russian President  Vladimir Putin—and, eventually, making them vulnerable to being deposed.

Stigma-based  sanctions work indirectly and often slowly, but they have the advantage of being effective with regimes, such as Putin’s, that are well defended against economic and political punishments. Stigmatization imposes shame, moral condemnation, and isolation; even the best lawyers and the biggest cash reserves can offer no defense against pariah status. These punishments are often particularly painful for rogue leaders and regimes, which crave respect and inclusion. Imposing the “social death” of stigmatization widens divisions within targeted regimes, deters international allies from providing support, and ultimately makes strongmen look impotent and isolated. Any of these mechanisms can hasten regime collapse.


Sociologists have long studied the power of stigma, but it has seldom been considered by analysts and policymakers in international relations. Since the pioneering work of Max Weber and Thorstein Veblen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sociologists have found that individuals often value social status more than they do material wealth. Building on this work in the 1950s and 1960s, the sociologist Erving Goffman analyzed stigma and shame, which destroy status by imposing a “spoiled identity” on targets. Stigma doesn’t just humiliate people: it deprives them of vital resources—such as relationships, positions, and information—by making association with them too costly for others. The status-based sanctions against Russian oligarchs operate on the same principle as the scarlet letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel: they mark the bearer as morally polluted and to be avoided at all costs by respectable people.

Stigmatization is a ritualized collective act that requires public repudiations from multiple actors. During the week following Russia’s invasion of  Ukraine, hundreds of Western companies unexpectedly and abruptly announced that they were suspending operations in Russia or withdrawing permanently from the Russian markets. These included not only global consumer giants such as IKEA and McDonald’s but also energy companies, including BP and ExxonMobil, that had weathered almost every type of political risk over their decades-long involvement in Russia. Thus far, over 1,000 Western firms have publicized the closure of their offices in Russia. International cultural and sporting organizations have also jumped on the bandwagon: Western orchestras have stopped performing the works of Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Russian athletes were excluded from events ranging from soccer’s World Cup to Formula One auto races. The collective and immediate show of opprobrium and moral revulsion by Western governments, corporations, and cultural bodies meted out wide-reaching and consequential stigmatization.

Scholars of international relations have studied stigmatization in relation to “rogue states”, “state sponsors of terrorism”, and “pariah states”—labels usually applied by powerful nations or international organizations to call out various transgressions, albeit with mixed results. Over the past two decades, an explosion of international rankings on global governance have sought to discipline lower-ranked states through stigma. Weaker targets, such as some of the small countries blacklisted as “uncooperative tax havens” by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have capitulated under the weight of stigmatization. But more powerful states have challenged the authority of the United States and other Western countries to impose shame-based sanctions.  Russia, for example, has countersanctioned “unfriendly countries”. Thus, stigmatization may appear to some as a weak, symbolic gesture.

But stigmatization can be much more effective when aimed at prominent individuals rather than at a country. The impact of shame-based sanctions on elites can be judged by the significant risks that a handful of Russian oligarchs took in trying to stigma-proof themselves shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. For such elites, it can be risky to put any distance between themselves and the Kremlin; in the past, wealthy Russians have suffered for publicly criticizing Putin. For example, in 2005, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company, was stripped of his $15 billion fortune and ultimately sentenced to 14 years in a penal colony on charges that included tax fraud, though his real affront appeared to be funding the liberal opposition to the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, a number of oligarchs chose to speak up against the war in  Ukraine. Oleg Tinkov, a billionaire banker, denounced the invasion as a “crazy war” on Instagram. He faced reprisals from the Kremlin, such as being forced into exile after selling his stake in the bank at a 97 percent discount. But he reserved his most pointed dismay for the sanctions he faced from the United Kingdom. Making no mention of any economic or other material impact of those sanctions, Tinkov instead expressed outrage at being stigmatized as a Putin ally: “I’m sure [the United Kingdom] will realize sooner rather than later they made a mistake”, he said in an interview with Forbes. Similarly, Mikhail Fridman, billionaire co-founder of Alfa Bank, called the invasion of Ukraine “a tragedy”, then seemed stunned to find himself publicly shamed as a target of Western sanctions. “We sincerely believed we are such good friends of the Western world that we couldn’t be punished”, he whined in a Bloomberg interview.

Russian oligarchs who were sanctioned following the invasion of Ukraine have consistently reserved their loudest laments for their lost social standing rather than their lost wealth. For example, Fridman’s business partner Petr Aven lamented that he had been “humiliated” by Latvia’s decision to strip him of the nation’s highest honor due to his alleged complicity with Putin’s regime. Russian oligarchs who once entertained Western heads of state, celebrities, and corporate leaders are now socially toxic, stripped of the influence that they cultivated over decades. Most remain very rich, with their fortunes stashed in sanctions-defying jurisdictions, such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey. But publicly losing face, as well as the villas and yachts that they once used to socialize with Western elites, has dealt the oligarchs a devastating blow.

Some sanctioned elites have attempted to salvage their reputations. Most notably, Roman Abramovich, a billionaire industrialist and former Russian politician, proposed to sell his prized Western asset—the Chelsea Football Club—at a loss, pledging the proceeds to “all victims of the war in Ukraine”. A few weeks later, Abramovich was spotted in Istanbul, presenting himself as a mediator at peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, and was reported to have played a role in negotiating a prisoner exchange. According to The Wall Street Journal, Fridman offered to transfer $1 billion of his personal wealth to a Ukrainian bank in an attempt to persuade the British government to lift sanctions on him. (Fridman denied that there was an intended quid pro quo.) Such responses are difficult to explain in terms of profit-seeking or political loyalty, but they are consistent with the fear of being labelled an international pariah.

Even Putin has left the impression that public shaming cuts more deeply than economic sanctions. Following the initial round of luxury asset seizures directed at Russia’s oligarchs, Putin took the extraordinary step of acknowledging the stigmatization personally, via a televised statement in which he said that the West was trying to “cancel Russia”, likening it to the widespread criticism of the novelist J. K. Rowling for her views on gender. Previous rounds of economic sanctions on Russian oligarchs never generated responses like these.


Authoritarians rely on uninterrupted displays of control over other elites, both within and outside the boundaries of the state. For a strongman such as  Putin, the public expression of dissent by oligarchs who formerly marched in lockstep with his policies is a serious blow. It has been followed by increasingly open defiance on the part of domestic and regional allies who formerly did his bidding. These include a number of municipal authorities in Moscow and St. Petersburg who recently called for Putin’s resignation.

So far, Putin has maintained his hold on power. But cracks in the façade of absolute control have historically seeded palace coups and revolutions. Historians credit the prolonged stigma caused by sanctions as playing a role in the dissolution of elite cohesion that ultimately brought down dictators such as General Augusto Pinochet, in Chile, President Mobutu Sese Seko, in Zaire, and General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu, in Romania.

The transformation of Russian elites into international pariahs also puts pressure on the country’s relations with its allies and partners, creating another source of strain that could help shatter Putin’s regime. For example, the stigma now attached to Putin seems to have soured his partnership with Chinese President  Xi Jinping, who formerly called the Russian president his “best friend”. Xi and other leaders of the so-called BRICS countries—Brazil, India, and South Africa—have publicly voiced concerns about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, breaking a long-standing pattern of neutrality toward or tacit endorsement of Russia’s transgressions. Kazakhstan, historically a Russian ally, enraged the Kremlin by refusing to expel its Ukrainian ambassador or to recognize annexed regions of eastern Ukraine. At the UN General Assembly meeting in September, Russian officials failed to secure a secret ballot for the vote that condemned its annexation of four Ukrainian provinces. Presumably, Russia wanted to avoid the embarrassment of old allies publicly voting in opposition.

Neither the stigmatization of his oligarch allies nor the cold shoulder from his erstwhile international partners has convinced  Putin to withdraw from Ukraine. But domestic and international elites continue to distance themselves from a regime that is increasingly isolated and in apparent disarray. This elite defiance seems to be trickling down, in a pattern similar to the fall of other autocrats, spelling major trouble for the regime. Back in February, one of Putin’s most enthusiastic propagandists, the state television presenter Vladimir Solovyov, raged in prime time about the loss of his Italian villas to EU sanctions. Seven months later, Solovyov openly broke from Putin by expressing pessimism about the “special military operation” to the millions of viewers of his news program, and suggesting that Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu should find another job. Days later, ordinary Russians were emboldened to engage in violent protests against military conscription.

The impact of shame-based sanctions on influential Russians—and their knock-on effects for both domestic compliance and international alliances—suggests that this tool has significant value for policymakers, especially when dealing with authoritarian kleptocracies such as those in Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Turkey. Autocrats in those places are nervously watching what is happening to the Kremlin and wondering just how long they could survive as pariahs.

Alexander Cooley is Claire Tow Professor of Political Science and Vice Provost at Barnard College. Brooke Harrington is Professor of Economic Sociology at Dartmouth College and author of  Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent.

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