Russian President Vladimir Putin tends to respond to Western sanctions in ways its authors probably didn’t anticipate: by going after those Russians who could most help their own country and who want to build ties with the West. His order last week to US diplomatic missions in Russia to cut their staff to 455 people — the exact number of staff that Russia has in the US — is the latest example.
In 2012, when the US Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, which authorized the government to impose travel bans and asset freezes on Russian officials involved in human rights violations, Russia responded by banning US adoptions of Russian children. The asymmetrical response was preposterous to many Russians, and thousands protested in Moscow. Those children whom no Russians wanted to adopt — usually those with severe disabilities — were put up for foreign adoption, and it was mindlessly cruel to deprive them of a chance for a better life. But Russian state TV conducted a major campaign at the time alleging cruel treatment of Russian kids by US adoptive families and stressing national pride. Polls at the time showed about half of Russians supporting the retaliatory bill while less than a third were opposed.
In 2014, in response to Ukraine-related sanctions imposed by the US and Europe, Russia banned the import of a long list of foods from Europe. The effect on European food producers hasn’t been major: It was largely offset by export increases to other markets and by immediate European Union support measures for certain countries and sectors. But every time I have visitors from Moscow in Berlin, I watch them stock up on cheese to take home.
People who miss French cheese are a relatively Westernized minority. Most Russians loved another state TV campaign (complete with images of illegally imported food trampled by tractors) that told them the countersanctions were good for Russian agriculture. Two-thirds of Russians say the government was right to introduce the food embargo. Only 12 percent contend that it hurts Russians more than the West.
Now that the US Congress has passed a new sanctions package, which codifies and tightens some previously existing restrictions, Putin wants US diplomatic missions — the embassy in Moscow and the consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok — to shed staff. There are only about 300 people in the missions who were hired in the US; the rest, more than 900 of them, are local hires, most of them Russians who do technical work. The US will likely choose to keep most of its diplomats (and spies) in place but get rid of the locals. This means the loss of several hundred Russian jobs. But, more to the point, the cuts will almost certainly hurt Russians’ ability to travel to the US, as former ambassador Michael McFaul pointed out in a tweet.
Even today, a Russian applying for a visitor visa to the U.S. in Moscow must wait 46 days for an obligatory consular appointment. The wait times are considerably shorter in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, but now they will likely converge toward the current Moscow norm, and in Moscow, people will have to wait long enough to make travel planning impossible.
If Putin wanted his retaliatory measures to be symmetrical, he would have taken into consideration that the Russian consular service in the US issued about 86,000 visas in 2015, while the US missions in Russia issued almost 183,000 visas in fiscal year 2016. But Putin doesn’t care about the kind of Russians who want to travel to the US He has repeatedly warned officials and law enforcement officers against going to Western countries where they could be targeted by intelligence services and where their assets could be seized under one set of sanctions or another. Those who still want to go are perceived almost as representatives of a pro-Western fifth column — just like those hapless cheese-eaters and the minority that believes Russian orphans can have a better life in the US than at home.
This pattern of Russian responses provides an important part of the answer to an often-asked question: Why is Russia preoccupied with Western sanctions despite their obvious inability to achieve stated goals?
It’s impossible to know the counterfactual — what Putin would have done were there no sanctions — but the sanctions have not deterred him from propping up separatists in eastern Ukraine, holding on to Crimea or allowing cyber campaigns against Western countries to go ahead. Nor do they really hurt his rich friends. There have been no high-profile seizures of their assets since Italy froze $30 million worth of real estate owned by Putin’s former judo partner Arkady Rotenberg — a mosquito bite to the billionaire. Sanctions have also failed to inflict much pain on the Russian economy, which has greatly reduced its debt exposure to Western nations and is working to increase its technological self-sufficiency in key areas such as oil and gas.
But just as the US sanctions were primarily about playing to a domestic audience — a way to respond to the Trump-Russia scandal — the Kremlin’s response is to use them for domestic fodder. They are held up as proof of “Russophobia” — Russian officials’ favorite term to describe what they see as the unfair treatment of Russia, a desire to curb it rather than cooperate with it. The Kremlin anger isn’t a sign of real pain; it’s strategic.
Being angry about sanctions strengthens Putin’s domestic message about a country surrounded by enemies and undermined by unpatriotic Russians subverted by a hostile West. The anger is aimed largely at the domestic audience and meant to tell it that looking for friends, opportunities or just plain fun in the West is futile, perhaps even hostile to the Motherland.