Global Politics

Are Russians worried about the new sanctions? Not so much

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Two former Russian soldiers, Sevold, right, and Nikolai (diving), cool off in a fountain in Moscow's VDNKh Park. Unlike many people in the park, these men expressed some concern about the impact of the new round of sanctions against Russia.

Credit:

Charles Maynes

This would seem to be a bad week for the Kremlin. On top of the allegations of Moscow's culpability in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, Western governments finally announced long-awaited “sectoral” sanctions against the Russian economy

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The US and — more importantly — the European Union are imposing a range of penalties and embargoes on Russia's energy, banking and defense sectors. High-ranking Kremlin officials were also added to travel ban lists in Europe. It's intended as punishment for Russia’s continued support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Adding insult to injury, an arbitration court in The Hague ruled this week that Russia owes shareholders of Yukos Oil $50 billion for illegally re-nationalizing the oil and gas company a decade ago.

But if all this was designed to change the Kremlin's “calculus” in Ukraine, don't bet on it. “America and Europe think they’re being very tough, but to our elite it comes across as cowardice,” says Russian political analyst Feodor Krashenninikov. Sanctions, in the minds of the Kremlin's inner circle, are pitiful moves compared to sending troops and fighting in Ukraine. The thinking, Krashennikov says, is "We send troops into Ukraine, what are you going to do then?”

Publically, Russian officials take a soft line. They insist Western partners — they always refer to them as partners — are ignoring the Kremlin's efforts to sponsor peace talks in eastern Ukraine. In a Monday press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that sanctions would not reduce the Kremlin to hysterics. "To respond to a blow with a blow is not worthy of a major country," Lavrov said.

In fact, Lavrov, President Vladimir Putin and others in the Kremlin have said that sanctions provide Russia with an opportunity of sorts — a chance to look inward and improve underperforming portions of the Russian economy. But not everyone is buying it.

“I think there is a large self-delusional component," says Konstantin Sonin, an economist with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "When you don’t like something, you pretend there’s a positive sign." 

But that doesn't mean the sanctions are likely to work. “Of course they’re damaging to the Russian economy,” Sonin says. “But the damage won’t be immediate, so an ordinary Russian citizen would not see any kind of effect in his or her daily life."

When asked about the round of new sanctions, Russians in Moscow’s VDNKh Park (which translates as the "Exhibition of Achievements of the People's Economy") react with equal doses of resolve and resentment.

“It’s unfair. No one loves Russia except for Russians themselves,” says Yulia, a government worker. Another woman, Olga, says people in the US and Europe are uninformed. “Russia has nothing to do with Ukraine,” she says, adding that she follows events about Ukraine on Russian TV.

A student named Vika, who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap, says, “These sanctions will go nowhere. In place of Europe, we’ll have other partners.”

They’re not alone. Recent independent polls suggest some 60 percent of Russians remain unconcerned about the impact of the sanctions, though observers say that could change. In fact, the only people here who seemed even remotely worried were two guys in bathing trunks, Sevold and Nikolai. They’re former soldiers turned Siberian husky dog traders.

Even if the sanctions hurt, Nikolai tells me, Russian officials won’t back down: “Just like they didn’t for Hitler and Napoleon. Russians are hardheaded that way.”