international analysis and commentary

Misunderstanding ordinary Russians and the failure of sanctions

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Despite inflicting severe pain on the economy, and therefore on ordinary Russians, sanctions imposed by Western states on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis have had the opposite effect: instead of weakening the domestic power base of President Vladimir Putin thus forcing him to change his policy, they have enhanced his position as the central figure in the country.

Moreover, sanctions have exacerbated the fundamental reason behind the Ukraine crisis – Russia’s tragic alienation from Europe and the West. Ordinary Russians have become increasingly skeptical of European values and ideas. They have begun to see these values, including democracy, the rule of law, minority rights and others as a facade for crude foreign policy interests. Many Russians have reverted to conservatism.

While political cleavages can be settled and forgotten quickly, the values gap will prove more difficult to overcome.

While the idea behind sanctions was that many Russians would become more critical of Putin over diminishing standards of living, the reality is that, at least at the initial stage, civil society has rallied around the idea of a revival of national pride.

At the beginning, sanctions, imposed by the European Union, the United States, Japan and some other states in several rounds, targeted Putin and his circle. Since July 2014, following the crash of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 airliner over the rebel-held territory in Ukraine, much tougher measures were introduced, targeting key financial and energy sectors of the Russian economy.

The logic was that as the country’s economic situation worsens, ordinary Russians will direct their anger at the government and at Putin himself, forcing him to withdraw his support for the pro-Moscow insurgents in Ukraine.

In reality, neither Putin nor Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko can stop the hostilities single-handedly. The reason why the political crisis there has turned into a civil war is that the old game plan of a unitary Ukraine gradually integrating into NATO at the cost of breaking strategic links with Russia did not work. In order to stop hostilities, a new framework must be developed through a process, which would involve local Ukrainians from all parts of the country, as well as representatives of Russia and Europe. Putin and his policies are not key to resolving the crisis.

On the other hand, sanctions were also imposed against Russia because it violated some of the accepted rules of international politics – that one state cannot absorb territories of another state. Sanctions should have served as an example to the international community at large that even such a big and strong state such as Russia cannot take international actions that are not approved by the West.

While during the recent talks in Minsk the leaders of Russia, France, Ukraine and Germany spent 16 hours discussing a ceasefire in Ukraine’s east and the possible measures to resolve the crisis there, the question of Crimea was not even touched upon. It is clear now that Russia’s absorption of the Crimea peninsula will be de facto recognized with a possible eventual arrangement including a free economic zone there that will be jointly administered by Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, Russia will retain its sovereignty over Crimea even at the risk of a war.

Overall, the Western governments have miscalculated the effect of sanctions because they failed to take into account Russia’s cultural peculiarities. While many pundits are still trying to decipher the “Putin code”, the truth is that it is not Putin Europe and the United States are facing in the Ukraine crisis, but the Russian people as a whole.

The failure to see the cultural and historical underpinnings of the situation in Ukraine by the West has been one of the main reasons why a political crisis there has morphed into a full-scale armed conflict and risks to spark a larger military conflict with multiple states involved.

When 85% of Russians say they approve Putin’s actions as Russia’s president, what they mean is that they approve and support the Russian state as such. According to leading sociologists from the independent Levada Center public opinion organization, by absorbing Crimea last March, Putin has made himself a symbolic figure who is viewed as not directly responsible for the economic perils of the country.

If presidential elections were held now, 74% of Russians would vote for Putin, according to the latest survey, released by the FOM pollster on February 8. This is the highest figure since 2008. Other pollsters, including independent ones, show similar results.

Putin’s rating has remained steady against the background of spiraling inflation (reaching 11.4% last year) and the ruble devaluation (losing more than 50% of its value against the US dollar in the last six months).

It is clear that Russia is bound to experience a deep economic downturn. The country’s GDP is predicted to shrink by at least 3%, with Russian companies and banks unable to access European capital markets due to sanctions, where they were getting up to 90% of foreign capital inflows. The overall capital outflow has reached $150 billion as of last year, as Russian companies are forced to pay off their debts. For the first time since Putin came into power in 1999, people’s real incomes have fallen and are forecasted to fall further this year.

At the same time, while Russians are getting tired of the confrontation and become more worried about their economic prospects, they also tend to direct their anger at foreign governments, not at their own. According to a Levada poll, 81% percent of Russians think negatively of the US, a record high since such polls began to be conducted. More worryingly, 71% think negatively of the EU (with the previous peak of only 39% achieved at the time of the Russian war with Georgia in 2008). Mirroring this data, 80% of Russians say they think positively of China now, with only 8% having a negative opinion. At the same time, both culturally and geographically, Russia belongs to Europe, rather than to China and Asia.

The policy of cordoning Russia off by dragging Ukraine, Georgia and other states into EU-led associations is failing. It has already produced devastating results in the form of more than 5,300 deaths in Eastern Ukraine, according to the United Nations. Sanctions did not affect Russian policies as they are determined by cultural and historic affinity with Ukraine, instead of economic or even political interests. Any Russian leader would be concerned about Ukraine slipping away from the Russian orbit. In order to pursue a viable policy that will pave the way for a stable, secure and prosperous Ukraine, Russia and Europe at large, these concerns must be addressed first.