MOSCOW — In Russia, showing weakness or fear of any kind is taboo. The pretense of not caring, or cockiness, play along with this psychology that helps explain the way Russia is reacting to this week's announcement of more severe Western sanctions. Sanctions? Don’t care, hardly even noticed ...
That has pretty much been the public reaction. On the Tuesday evening news on Channel One Russia, which is partly owned by the state, the sanctions were mentioned in the second half of the program after the female presenter had spoken at detailed length about the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Boris Titov, Russian ombudsman for entrepreneurs’ rights, declared: "The middle classes will only benefit from the sanctions."
The government newspaper Rossijskaja Gaseta almost completely ignored the sanctions. On Wednesday's front page there was nothing more than a reference to an article in the economy section headlined: "Russian investors need have no fear of Western sanctions." The tabloid Moskowskij Komsomolez, which has close ties to the government, posed the question as to whether Russia should forbid the import of fruit and vegetables from the European Union — not because of the sanctions, of course, which were not mentioned in the text, but because the produce is allegedly insect-ridden.
The main priority for political leaders appeared to be keeping people calm. Mostly, Russians wait for President Vladimir Putin to speak before venturing an opinion along those general lines. But Putin had kept rather silent. The clearest reply to the Western sanctions came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stated that this "irresponsible step" would unavoidably result in price rises on the European energy market.
Loudest of all were political hardliners. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogosin tweeted that sanctions against the state-owned United Shipbuilding Corporation were a sign that Moscow’s military shipbuilding industry "is becoming a problem for Russia’s enemies."
In three years at the latest the Russian arms industry will no longer depend on imports, Rogosin announced. The independence from foreign suppliers and the political risks related to that had already been advanced by Putin on Monday. These were "absolutely key issues of Russia’s military and economic security, our technological and industrial independence and technological sovereignty," the president explained.
Predators from the West
Achieving economic independence from the West over and above the arms industry will define Russia’s future course. Memories of the Cold War are stirring, as is the Russian myth of the motherland surrounded on all sides by enemies. The Communist Party, which with regard to the Ukraine crisis is completely on the Kremlin’s side and even plays the role of radical trailblazer, rushed into the fray, with the Deputy of the State Duma, Communist Ivan Melnikov, saying: "The U.S. sanctions aren’t sanctions, they are open war against the Russian people."
His party comrade Vyacheslav Tetekin from the Defense Committee spoke of a Cold War that never ended. "The West is a predator. It smells blood."
The deputy head of the Economic Committee, Mikhail Yemelyanow of the Fair Russia party, called for the sanctions to be met by limits on the import of products from the United States and Europe into Russia. On Wednesday, imports of fruit and vegetables from Poland were forbidden, and further steps are being considered.
Several parliamentarians from the government’s United Russia party suggested anchoring the term "aggressor state" in the legislation, which would be applied to countries that impose sanctions on Russia. Companies from these countries would be prohibited from selling consulting services in Russia. This would affect major consulting firms like McKinsey and PwC.
After the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the sharpening of sanctions doesn’t really come as a surprise for Russia. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that he didn’t understand what change of policy the West wanted from Russia. If further sanctions were to come, Russia would not react "hysterically" or take "tit for tat" measures, he stated.
The sanctions do damage the Russian economy which — unlike the days of the Soviet Union — is narrowly tied to the global economy. The finance sector is particularly hard-hit. Those in the economic sector, who doubtlessly understand best what consequences the sanctions will have for Russia, are the most worried. Ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin warned in recent weeks of a recession and criticized the anti-West rhetoric.
"We live in a world in which we can learn from the best performances. It’s a possibility for the quick modernization of Russia," he said, adding that the limitation of relations with the West would put the brake on modernization.
However, liberal economic experts have virtually no influence on Russian foreign policy. In the government, the liberal Minister of the Economy and Finance is mainly charged with minimizing the damage from the sanctions. First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov played down the new sanctions, quipping to journalists: "In for a penny, in for a pound."