Last week I flew into Moscow, arriving at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 8. It gets dark in Moscow around that time, and the sun doesn't rise until about 10 a.m. at this time of the year - the so-called Black Days versus White Nights. For anyone used to life closer to the equator, this is unsettling. It is the first sign that you are not only in a foreign country, which I am used to, but also in a foreign environment. Yet as we drove toward downtown Moscow, well over an hour away, the traffic, the road work, were all commonplace. Moscow has three airports, and we flew into the farthest one from downtown, Domodedovo - the primary international airport. There is endless renovation going on in Moscow, and while it holds up traffic, it indicates that prosperity continues, at least in the capital.
Our host met us and we quickly went to work getting a sense of each other and talking about the events of the day. He had spent a great deal of time in the United States and was far more familiar with the nuances of American life than I was with Russian. In that he was the perfect host, translating his country to me, always with the spin of a Russian patriot, which he surely was. We talked as we drove into Moscow, managing to dive deep into the subject.
From him, and from conversations with Russian experts on most of the regions of the world - students at the Institute of International Relations - and with a handful of what I took to be ordinary citizens (not employed by government agencies engaged in managing Russia's foreign and economic affairs), I gained a sense of Russia's concerns. The concerns are what you might expect. The emphasis and order of those concerns were not.
Russians' Economic Expectations
I thought the economic problems of Russia would be foremost on people's minds. The plunge of the ruble, the decline in oil prices, a general slowdown in the economy and the effect of Western sanctions all appear in the West to be hammering the Russian economy. Yet this was not the conversation I was having. The decline in the ruble has affected foreign travel plans, but the public has only recently begun feeling the real impact of these factors, particularly through inflation.
But there was another reason given for the relative calm over the financial situation, and it came not only from government officials but also from private individuals and should be considered very seriously. The Russians pointed out that economic shambles was the norm for Russia, and prosperity the exception. There is always the expectation that prosperity will end and the normal constrictions of Russian poverty return.
The Russians suffered terribly during the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin but also under previous governments stretching back to the czars. In spite of this, several pointed out, they had won the wars they needed to win and had managed to live lives worth living. The golden age of the previous 10 years was coming to an end. That was to be expected, and it would be endured. The government officials meant this as a warning, and I do not think it was a bluff. The pivot of the conversation was about sanctions, and the intent was to show that they would not cause Russia to change its policy toward Ukraine.
Russians' strength is that they can endure things that would break other nations. It was also pointed out that they tend to support the government regardless of competence when Russia feels threatened. Therefore, the Russians argued, no one should expect that sanctions, no matter how harsh, would cause Moscow to capitulate. Instead the Russians would respond with their own sanctions, which were not specified but which I assume would mean seizing the assets of Western companies in Russia and curtailing agricultural imports from Europe. There was no talk of cutting off natural gas supplies to Europe.
If this is so, then the Americans and Europeans are deluding themselves on the effects of sanctions. In general, I personally have little confidence in the use of sanctions. That being said, the Russians gave me another prism to look through. Sanctions reflect European and American thresholds of pain. They are designed to cause pain that the West could not withstand. Applied to others, the effects may vary.