Do Western sanctions against Russia work?
The state of war between Russian and Ukraine commenced in 2014. The annexation of Crimea was a watershed event from which we count. The most recent development of that war was the military invasion of Eastern and Southern Ukraine in late February 2022. And that move was followed by the imposition of Western sanctions ‘like none the world has seen’, according to the ‘Economist’.
Presumably, Western sanctions were imposed to end the war against Ukraine. And, presumably, the causal mechanism, if it was ever specified by those who conceived the sanctions, would look something like this: sanctions will be imposed, prices would go up, hopefully scarcity would develop too, Russian population will suffer, it will then turn against Putin and depose him. That will end the war.
Has it happened and, if not, how close are we to this scenario? Findings of both the state-sponsored (VCIOM – Russian Pubic Opinion Research center) and the dissident research agencies in Russia (Levada Center) will tell you that almost half a year into the war and sanctions, the Russian public is feeling positive about its leadership and its political and economic policies, the public is optimistic about the future of the country, generally happy with the economic realities and reluctant to partake in protests.
Specifically, both VCIOM and Levada Center for years have been conducting surveys of Russian population asking the respondents about their level of trust in, or approval of, Vladimir Putin. These data reveal, first, that trust in Vladimir Putin was high already before the war. About 70% of Russians declared that they trusted him and /or approved of him. Obama, Trump and Biden, all of them together and each of them separately, could only dream of these levels of popular support. Even from these high-levels, Russians’ trust in Putin shot up sharply twice – in 2014, with annexation of Crimea and in March 2022, following the invasion into Eastern Ukraine. In March 2022 the proportion of the Russian public trusting/approving Putin reached 80% and stayed at this science-fictional level ever since. And it is not just Putin that they trust….
Satisfaction with personal life went up too, for example. Usually, about 70% of Russians are prepared to say that their personal life is very good, good, or at least not bad. After March 2022, 80% of Russians said that. Satisfaction with the authorities’ economic and foreign policies rose in a similar manner. Optimism about the future increased to new levels and so did the conviction that Russia was going in the right direction. The grand summary of the situation is that in March 2022 Russian population experienced a lift of heart of some sort. It did not dissipate. The lift of heart is still there, six months and so many sanctions later.
Levada Center data also tell an incredible story of the development of the new ‘Cold War’ in the Russian mind. Unfavourable views of the USA and the European Union were unambiguously a minority view in Russia (mostly under 20%) really until the annexation of Crimea. It was specifically after the annexation that anti-American and anti-European majorities formed. This sentiment showed signs of decline pre-2022 and then resumed and peaked at a very high level in response to Western position on war in Ukraine.
It is now time to go back to Western sanctions…There is not much room for experiments in social sciences outside of psychology. And even in that field, scientists face many constrains. The chief one is the moral nature of an experiment. The best way to determine what conditions make people commit a gruesome crime, for example, is to make it possible for them to commit such a crime freely, modify conditions and see how different outcomes arise from different conditions. Yet, this is an impossible ask – experiments of this kind are deemed immoral, no matter how potentially useful they may be for science and policy. Consequently, such experiments are ‘unconductable’ under the current regulations that rule the scientific fields. ‘Natural experiments’ are a godsend. These are developments that occur naturally, independently, in a way unplanned and unaffected by researchers. They can be immoral in a sense that wars are, hence their value for science. They show how the reality looks under conditions that cannot be re-created in a ‘lab’. Russia-Ukraine war and the Western response to it in the form of sanctions is such natural experiment, unfolding live. What does it teach us then? What we have in Russia following the enactment of sanctions is heightened trust in authority, an increase in optimism and a transition from largely pro-Western to anti-Western outlook. All that is not exactly momentous either, it is lasting. That is what….
On international arena, Russia is not the only player to attract sanctions. Iran has been affected by sanctions for a while, and Israel has been exposed to some boycotts and threats of boycotts and sanctions for as long as it existed. The reasoning against sanctions is that they may have the opposite effect from the one that the imposers hope to achieve. They encourage cohesiveness, social mobilization, sense of threat in the targeted body. Sanctions also may fail due to their own half-hearted nature or due to the unexpected and unpredictable reactions of those placed under sanctions. I am not in a position to comment on the exact mechanism of ‘how sanctions work’. All I know is that, judging by the Russian public opinion, whatever policies were attempted by the West, they left us with an emboldened leader and a euphoric-looking population. Those who are enthusiastic about sanctions in other contexts, be it Iran or Israel, should take notice. So far sanctions look like ‘lazy parenting’, at best. At worst, they look like a show of virtue signaling enacted by a bunch of Foreign Office wanna-be stars of international diplomacy with distinct dislike of evidence-based style of thinking.