Making ordinary Russians pay for Putin’s aggressions? We take a look at the war’s impact on Russian civilians

By Abby Amoakuh

Updated Jun 6, 2024 at 12:51 AM

Reading time: 6 minutes

Ever since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine in 2022, the region and world have felt the repercussions through energy insecurity, food scarcity, and of course, the horrifying images of the lives lost on the battlefield. The bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people against the aggressions of Vladimir Putin’s imperialism ambitions have been well-documented and continue to be applauded internationally. Yet, Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent pleas for permission to retaliate on Russian soil and more weaponry have shed renewed light on the West’s role in this war and the effect of economic sanctions.

While sanctions aren’t as loud and obvious as missiles, they can be just as lethal in today’s globalised world economy.

With sanctions, living standards quickly collapse, and people end up fighting for basic necessities such as medicine and fuel. SCREENSHOT spoke with Russian political scientist Dr Illya Matveev, who originally described the immediate impact of the sanctions on the country as “30 years of economic development thrown into the bin.”

Matveev went on to illustrate how financial sanctions dramatically limit Russia’s capacity to import goods, destroying the country’s productive capacity in most spheres and forcing some factories to shut down due to a lack of foreign components.

However, this sort of economistic language can cloak the real-life impact of sanctions on the civilian population. It’s important to keep in mind that words, just like weapons, can be effective tools of mass destruction, or effective ways to hide it.

How has the war been affecting Russians?

Shortly after the sanctions on Russia were announced, democratic national security journalist Spencer Ackerman penned an article titled Making Ordinary Russians Suffer for Putin’s Invasion in which he concluded that “to recognize that sanctions are war by other means is to recognize that economic weapons make the equivalent of war crimes scalable.”

“This is economic war,” left-wing journalist Rogé Karma noted. “And, in particular, this is economic war aimed directly at civilians, directly at those who had the least say in the decision to invade Ukraine in the first place.”

Once we pierce through the technocratic language of inflation figures, a falling gross domestic product (GDP), and Putin’s state propaganda of Russia doing better than ever, as it fights for its independence and is working to dismantle the Nazi government of Ukraine, a more dire images for his population emerges.

When Western sanctions started, they were almost immediately followed by reports of increased unemployment as the national currency plunged and international companies cut off their ties to Russia. Ordinary Russians began to report difficulties with accessing medicines such as chemotherapy treatments as many of them were imported from abroad, and citizens who were in already economically precarious positions were pushed into more abstract poverty.

Still, the country’s GDP is only 7 to 10 per cent below what it would have been without sanctions in 2024. On top of this, internal reports are emerging that Russia’s managed to stabilise. Russians have been reporting increased faith in their economy, improved living standards, and perceptions that the job market is at its highest on record.

What do economic sanctions do to the population?

This seems contradictory and confusing, so to gain a better understanding of how sanctions have been impacting Russia’s civilian population, SCREENSHOT contacted Dr Peter van Bergeijk, professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Dr Bergeijk’s research focuses on world trade and economic sanctions. The expert is also the editor of the book Research Handbook on Economic Sanctions.

“It is always difficult to assess the impact of sanctions on the go because sanction targets have an incentive to hide that impact and manipulate statistics,” Dr Bergeijk noted.

“They say that the first victim of the battlefield is truth. The second is statistics (…). For 2022, the first year that the sanctions were applied we can see a reduction of income and consumption per head by 1 to 2 per cent,” Dr Bergeijk replied via email. A reduction in consumption per head usually indicates increased inflation and an economic slowdown that reduces disposable income and the overall purchasing power of a population. Bergeijk explained that he drew these conclusions from direct observation rather than secondary data.

Matveev, who previously lived in St Petersburg, also shared his thoughts:

“So that was my initial reaction, that is going to be very bad for Russia, it’s going to be like, a drop in the GDP of like 30 per cent. But then I discovered that, first of all, the Russian economy is more resilient than people usually think. And secondly, market economies in general, are quite resilient. When you have a market economy, it means that it can adjust. For instance, we had COVID and then we had most countries adjusting to the COVID situation. In a similar way, the Russian economy was able to adjust to this new situation.”

Specifically about the impact on the civilian population, Dr Matveev noted: “In terms of things that are not immediately seen, there is medical equipment and healthcare. They’re supposedly excluded from sanctions but there are still problems with delivering all that stuff to Russia. Also, clinical trials of Western drugs in Russia have declined. So there are not enough new medicines in the country and this is obviously a big problem for the people who live in Russia.”

“Also, a lot of doctors left the country because of the war and doctors can be enlisted to serve the army as military doctors. And so a lot of doctors [are gone] and this causes greater problems for the healthcare system.” he continued.

“We’re feeling the isolation very strongly,” the expert carried on. “Even when you do not live in Russia, you still have problems with your bank accounts, with your visas, with your like legal statutes. It’s difficult to legalise yourself in other countries, especially in Western countries.”

Amid the worsening situation for LGBTQAI+ people in Russia, the inability of Russians to easily leave their country has come under sharp criticism. Gay men in Chechnya in southern Russia, for instance, still face the threat of honour killings by their families. In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that hundreds of gay men were rounded up by security forces and tortured at secret detention sites during a purge. Several of them were never seen again.

Since Russians are barred from entering most European countries for tourism purposes, this has impaired their ability to gain fast access to other countries to flee life-threatening violence. This, of course, reinforces the idea that sanctions don’t impact the political and economic elite as much as they target the ordinary population.

SCREENSHOT also reached out to Gary Hufbauer, a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who worked on the book Economic Sanctions Reconsidered.

When confronted with this argument, Hufbauer answered: “Since 1990, the UN and major sender countries (the US and EU) often talk about punishing elites without harming ordinary citizens. In practice, that’s hard to accomplish because the elites have many ways of deflecting economic pain to the broad population.”

“Thus, whatever the named target (particular individuals or firms), sanctions may unintentionally resemble carpet bombing, the strategy advocated by Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris in World War II and embraced for a time by Winston Churchill (to his subsequent regret). That outcome reduces the effectiveness of sanctions but does not necessarily make them totally ineffective. However, the unintended harm to civilians raises ethical considerations, just as in war.”

Bergeijk had similar considerations: “The use of ‘smart’ or ‘targeted’ sanctions attempt to remedy this, so there is already a lot of restraint. Unfortunately, such micro-sanctions are not effective. What is still needed is comprehensive macro sanctions. This directly hits the population at large and not the elite but it will make the war effort more costly to bear. It is an ethical question of which of the bads is worse: do nothing or do something that may help but also hits the innocent.”

The goal of sanctions is clear: Pressure Putin to immediately cease his invasion of Ukraine by making life worse for him and his people. However, considering that the Freedom House index is currently not rating Russia as a free country, this raises questions about the real political power and accountability of the population.

“Russia is a dictatorship,” Dr Matveev replied. “It’s not like Russians can elect someone else. What are we supposed to do? Dispose of Putin? Go to the Kremlin, and somehow throw him out? We have millions of policemen, soldiers, and all kinds of security protecting the regime.  It [would] be extremely bloody. [It would be] hundreds of thousands of deaths before some overthrow of Putin is possible. So this is not a realistic option. And because of that, it’s a catch-22. So the sanctions affect the population, but the population cannot do anything with the regime. Should they receive worse quality health care, for instance, or problems with banking in the West, because they have this authoritarian regime? So there are some dilemmas here.”

“It’s important to understand that the blame is entirely on Putin, and on the Russian regime. If Putin hadn’t invaded Ukraine, there would be no sanctions. It’s very simple. He brought it on himself and on all of us. So I do not really blame the West for this. And maybe I disagree with some specifics. But generally, what else was there? What else could happen after this kind of invasion? After the biggest war in Europe since the Second World War?”

For this reason, I asked our experts how to remain conscious and clear-eyed about these sanctions, which are becoming the future of modern warfare.

What should we keep in mind about sanctions?

Dr Hufbauer stated: “The experience of the last 30 years is more frequent use of sanctions, for multiple objectives, with no end in sight. All the great powers are now imposing multiple sanctions to achieve their foreign policy goals. That means the US, EU, China, Russia and India. In my opinion, young readers should demand clear statements as to the objective of sanctions, and timely evaluation of the costs they impose on both the target and sender countries.”

Dr Matveev added: “There are some aspects of this whole situation that are unnecessary. These restrictions on Russian bank accounts are unnecessary, and they complicate life a lot. Banking should be seen as a basic necessity.”

“I think that individually people [in and] from Russia should not be isolated. Like for instance, if you look at the boycotts of Russian culture, which is actually not a thing, it’s not [organised] boycotts but still. The thing to understand here is that on the individual level, there should be no complete break between Russia and the world,” he said, emphasising that boycotts should be directed at institutions.

Our interviews reveal that the true impact of sanctions extends beyond the economic indicators and affects the very fabric of society, potentially for decades to come. Balancing the need to stifle Putin’s ambitions while minimising the impact on ordinary civilians has undoubtedly been a delicate act to balance for Western leaders. This highlights our need to pay attention, not just to what sanctions are applied, but also to how they impact us and those least responsible for the war, as Ukraine continues to fight to restore peace and stability in Europe.

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