This article was written on the 11th of March 2022, two weeks after the "special military operation" in Russia was announced. It was originally published on Substack to reach a wider audience. While I was under no impression that my article would change anything, I felt it was important to inform the readers about the sentiment shared by most Russians and the possible effects of the sanctions that would lead to a further escalation of the conflict and radicalization of the Russian population. As time has shown, my concerns were valid.
We are currently witnessing an unprecedented global crisis. The current escalation reached a level that is very close to the point of no return. People from all over the world, as well as their leaders, campaign for imposing sanctions on Russia. Companies, from IKEA and Booking.Com to Coca-Cola and Uniliver are halting their operations in Russia. However, none of them have the intended effects and only make the situation worse.
It has been more than two weeks since the “special operation” started. The sanctions imposed on Russia did not stop the military action. If anything, they were imposed so quickly, all at once, that the West lost all the leverage it could have in a matter of days. The Russian government did not budge and instead continues its initial strategy with an even stronger determination. They have nothing to lose, at this point, and some of the sanctions are even playing into the hands of those who wanted a more isolated, state-controlled, and self-sufficient economy.
Most of the Russian people also do not care. They won’t change their stance because they cannot use an iPhone, access Facebook, shop at IKEA, or use their Visa or Mastercard. They couldn't afford any of it anyway. More than two-thirds of people in Russia do not even have a travel passport to go abroad. Almost none have any savings in foreign currencies, and the local payment systems still work just fine. Russia is already re-orienting its imports to China, so the temporary deficit of some goods will quickly be resolved.
The only ones who are affected by the current sanctions are the people who actually tried to push Russia in the direction towards the western values of democracy, openness, and tolerance. Most of them were very sensitive to the impending economical isolation and left Russia in defiance of the current events and to avoid being drafted into the army. They were the ones who were against the regime in the first place and could act as the agents of change from the inside. Not anymore.
All the oligarchs, on the other side, have probably opened the foreign bank accounts and got the golden EU passports a long time ago, so all these blanketed sanctions do not affect them (while the targeted ones may well do). The Russian companies have already started redirecting their distribution channels towards China and the Middle East. In fact, many are talking about new opportunities and welcome a temporary crisis as a much-needed motivation to reorient towards the East. In the long-term, the sanctions imposed will make Russia much less dependent on the West and much less receptive to its values.
What is happening in Russia in the meanwhile?
We see the resurgence of patriotic propaganda fuelled by the resistance against the West, who is now declared an enemy. While the sanctions will have an effect on those Russians who vote for Putin in several months, by that time the local narrative will convince everybody that the deterioration of their level of life is the result of the attack by the West on Russia, which is fighting for a noble cause.
Additionally, a new set of laws was introduced from within Russia, in response to the sanctions, making international trade much more difficult, reorienting Russian economy towards China.
Any dissent will be punished with a huge fine and a term in prison. Most Russians believe that Russia is fighting against fascism and to prevent the future nuclear war with Ukraine. That savior narrative is not going to be misplaced by the sanctions.
After a few years of isolation, the inflicted poverty will start to be felt, but it will already be too late to link it to the current events for an average Russian person. This will create the conditions for the emergence of a highly nationalistic, isolated, militarized state. All the people who have been trying to campaign for an alternative path will have left. Those who stay will have to silently agree with the general narrative supported by the majority and enforced by the law.
It is also very naive to think that the sanctions will make Russian people “realize” something and go on the streets to protest. Martyrdom is one of the core Russian values. A friend, an accountant, who is by no means a supporter of Putin, has told me that he’d rather eat breadcrumbs but “show” the US that there are red lines that cannot be crossed with Russia. My cousin who works at a factory in a small town for €300 a month, says they laugh at the sanctions. "Porsche left Russia... We even haven't seen a Porsche in our lifetime. We use Chinese phones and dress in cheap Chinese clothes. Even if our level of life falls 50% over a period of a few months, we will survive, because we're used to it from the 90s."
They voice a typical sentiment among Russians: while the people may not agree with everything that their leader does, they will support him in anything that has to do with claiming a voice and importance on the global stage. Even if it’s at the expense of the level of life and well-being. They are also not so afraid of material suffering as they have lived through the worst already before.
Those who think that sanctions will lead to the protests should also ask themselves how they are so sure that it's going to go the way they expect? There are many forces and interests within Russia that could use this opportunity to instill a much more extreme system with a strong desire to vindicate and prove itself. As yourself, if you really want to have something like this in Europe.
This quality of the Russian character is probably a result of a deeply ingrained cross-generational trauma. Children are often raised up with a lack of love and respect. Violence is common in families. When those children become adults they want to compensate for the lack of everything they did not have. This is clearly seen on the global stage: one of the complaints of the Russian politicians is that they were not treated with respect by the West. They are like traumatized children with nuclear weapons who are now throwing a tantrum to be noticed. Beating them up with the sanctions will only lead to a louder tantrum as they won’t stop until they collapse. Letting them know that you are ready to have a discussion and to address their traumas could be the first step towards de-escalation