Why Trump’s Russia Sanctions Won’t Work

What the European Union’s 2014 Crimean sanctions can teach us today.
A Muscovite prepares to cross the street outside of the Kremlin.
A Muscovite prepares to cross the street outside of the Kremlin.

In a nation where most of the population remembers well what it was like to live under Communism, economic pressure is not an effective weapon with which to bring about submission. With events like the three year siege of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Stalinism, the Cold War, and traumatic privatization still in living memory, it would be a massive understatement to say that Russians have seen and survived far worse. Since March 2014, mere weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine's Crimea, the European Union has progressively been inducing harder and harder economic sanctions upon Russia. As of the 28th of June 2017, sanctions will continue until January 31st 2018, some four years after original sanctions were introduced. Still Russia stands. Crimea has been annexed and Russian maps include it in the Russian Federation. If the goal of these sanctions was to cripple the Russian economy, many can say that they succeeded, as they largely contributed to the 2014 Russian financial crisis. If the goal of these sanctions was to force President Vladimir Putin or the Russian population to capitulate, they failed.

As President Donald Trump prepares to sign into law sanctions against Russia, President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated just how much this worries Russians. Not at all. Instead of conceding to Western wishes, President Putin has promised to expel 755 American diplomats. More than anything, Russians see this current round of sanctions as a misguided and uninformed attempt at intimidation and Western domination. Pravda.ru, one of the largest Russian online newspapers and the son of the infamous premier Soviet news source, called the sanctions “hysterical.” In a recent interview, President Putin voiced his regret over the degeneration of relations between the two countries, but stated that the situation will not be left unanswered. Officials with the Russian embassy in Washington said it best: "Washington has never understood that methods of pressure on Russia do not work, and sanctions cannot help improve the relations." Russians and their government alike want their reprisal to hurt. These sanctions, like many previous Western sanctions, will likely not garner the desired response. This is not the first time the Russian Federation has faced such punishment and we can look at the myriad sanctions imposed upon Russia after their 2014 invasion of Crimea as an example of how successful this current set may be.

Students cross the frozen Iset River that runs through the city of Yekaterinburg in Western Siberia.
Students cross the frozen Iset River that runs through the city of Yekaterinburg in Western Siberia.

In order to understand Russian foreign policy, one must first understand Russians. They are a people particularly conscious of history. The dissolution of the Soviet Union reduced Russia from a global power and regional hegemon to a failing capitalist state. It might feel to Russians as if great turns in history take them out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the era of privatization in the 1990s was marked by widespread social upheaval and suffering that left many nostalgic for the era of the Soviet Union. President Putin’s ascension to power in 2000 brought about stabilization, growth, and progress as he cut down oligarchs and mafiosos alike. Arguably more importantly, during his presidency he has assuaged the great sense of loss that Russians feel surrounding the fall of the Soviet Union. This is not to say that all Russians remember the Cold War years fondly, but many miss the cradle-to-grave security of Communism and the sense that they were the bastions of a global ideology, an axis on which the world spinned. Perhaps the British can sympathize with this traumatic loss of empire, which some claim motivated Thatcher’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982.

Although almost universally condemned internationally, President Putin’s invasion of Crimea actually caused a spike in his approval ratings. Crimea has historically been a Russian imperial territory and Russians saw the invasion as a return to empire, a reclaiming of what was once and rightfully theirs.

In the face of history, sanctions mean little. Russians have survived far worse economic conditions and know well how to weather a storm. After all, most Russians remember living in the USSR. As the ruble fell in 2014, rather than see their savings dwindle in value, Russians preemptively invested in iPhones, luxury cars, and Ikea furniture, so much so that Ikea had to cease operations because they couldn’t keep up with demand. Generally, Russians take sanctions as a challenge. Where a Western population might crumble in the face of rapid inflation and disappearing consumer goods, Russians take pride in holding their ground. With their eyes always on history, this current round of sanctions from Congress can’t look like more than a bump in the road. A better question is, can the West handle their response?

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