I had dinner with friends recently in Moscow. The talk around the table was all about the coming war with Ukraine. As I wrote recently, a kind of euphoria had set in with Russians regarding their annexation of Crimea. Russia had regained its place at the world geopolitical table; and Putin was seen as a strong leader, reforming the Russian empire. That euphoria has evaporated, and reality is setting in. There will be a war, and more people will die.
Perhaps even more disconcerting, to Muscovites especially, has been the halting, but generally across-the-board response from Western nations. The sanctions, although weak, have got the average Joe-bag-of-donuts attention in the Russian capital. It’s not because they are being targeted–they are not; it’s only Putin’s inner circle, and the average Joe has not been hurt yet financially. It’s because they are worried about their visas to the West.
Another friend told me the other day, with a shocked look on his face, that his girlfriend had applied to Germany for a visa for her twelve year old daughter and was rejected, in her eyes due to the Ukrainian situation. “Why would they prevent a twelve year old girl from going to camp?” he asked incredulously. People in Russia are just now starting to understand that there will be a cost to their adventures in annexing other countries. This is the stress point for applying pressure on the Russian government in response to their actions in Ukraine. If the Muscovite elite cannot send their children to camp, boarding school, travel, or go shopping in the West, they will be unhappy. This could backfire on Putin.
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In addition, any sectoral sanctions that could be applied to the Russian economy obviously have not been felt. Yes, Russian can turn eastwards for customers for its gas and for its technological needs; however, this will take a while for trade between Russia and China to become stronger. These types of sanctions will necessitate Europe getting on board to make them effective. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen.
In the end, war brings extreme uncertainty and insecurity to all those involved. Russians are starting to become worried about the future. They worry about what a war with Ukraine and additional tension with the West will do to their newfound prosperity and security. The nineties were a horrific time economically after the fall of the Soviet Union for the Russian population. They have long memories–although they tend to be stoic and resilient during hardship and crisis. This is ingrained in their DNA. In Russia, suffering is an art form. A recent poll found seventy percent of the Russian population was now worried about a coming military conflict.
I took a taxi to the airport in Moscow on my return to NYC. The driver was a veteran of the Russian presence in Afghanistan in the 1970s. His comment was, “There will not be a war as NATO is weak and Ukraine is no match for the Russian army.” That is probably true; but if the West finds a backbone, then all bets are off.
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