I came to the United States as a socialist. However, I was lucky enough to experience the virtues of the free market first-hand and to meet people who positively influenced my beliefs. Unfortunately, many Russians don't have similar opportunities, and in large part, economic sanctions that were imposed on Russia in 2014 are to blame.
Economic Sanctions Punish the Wrong People
Russians were made worse off not only in terms of material well-being but also in terms of the climate of ideas. The average Russian, it would be fair to say, was definitely not an avid globetrotter prior to 2014, as income per capita in Russia was low compared to the more developed countries. However, sanctions made traveling abroad, and with it the exchange of ideas, substantially harder for the average Russian. This artificial cultural isolation created a vacuum of ideas which, when combined with declining living standards and ubiquitous propaganda, nourishes a negative perception toward Western values.
If the West wants to export its values to Russia, it should help people understand its principles instead of hurting them.
The sanctions were introduced in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine. The purpose was to restrain Russia’s aggressive geopolitical agenda by targeting the financial, energy, and arms sectors. In addition, a number of individuals from President Putin’s inner circle as well as individuals from the military and the intelligence agencies were affected by travel bans and asset freezes.
These measures, exacerbated by falling oil prices and increasing domestic inflation, proved to be detrimental to the Russian economy. According to the World Bank, Russian GDP decreased by nearly 38 percent from $2.064 trillion in 2014 to $1.283 trillion in 2016. As a result, the average domestic consumer suffered a significant decrease in real income. The Russian Business Channel (RBC), for example, declared that Russians' real income per capita fell by 0.7 percent in 2014, 3.2 percent in 2015, and 5.9 percent in 2016.
Ideas Are Not Being Shared
However, Russians were made worse off not only in terms of material well-being but also in terms of the climate of ideas.
These unforeseen consequences have further strengthened Vladimir Putin’s hold on Russia. In Wealth, Poverty and Politics, Thomas Sowell examined factors that have acted throughout history to determine the standards of living in various nations. One of these factors — geography — has, in Sowell’s words, indirect economic effects on the “development of people themselves, depending on whether a given geographic setting facilitates or impedes their communication and interactions with the rest of human race.” (p.12)
Thus, proximity to a developed nation allows citizens of a backward country to experience first-hand how life can be different, adopt better technologies, and to possibly change their beliefs. However, given that “intellectual force is something that feeds upon the nutritious food of wide comparisons,” (p.12) cultural isolation has the opposite effect. The geographical location of mountain regions, for instance, made the exchange of ideas harder with more prosperous societies, thus creating a vacuum of ideas and contributing to their backwardness.
In a similar manner, economic sanctions put in place artificial Himalayan mountains between Russia and the West. They prevent the proliferation of free-market ideas due to declining living standards. As previously cited, Russians' real income decreased by approximately 10 percent between 2014 and 2016. It would be fair to assume that when one loses almost 10 percent of their real income, traveling to a different country would not be of high priority. And that is, indeed, what has happened.
As RBC pointed out in the same article, Russian citizens have drastically cut down on traveling abroad. Since 2014, the number of Russians’ foreign trips have declined from 43 million to 31.6 million, a decrease of more than 26 percent! Thus, as a result of sanctions, my fellow countrymen cannot travel as much abroad and are subsequently unable to observe the relative virtues of Western values as well as the workings of a more-free-market economy.
Left in a vacuum of ideas, people became vulnerable to the omnipresent government propaganda. Indeed, sanctions acted to reinforce the Kremlin's attempts at rebuking Western values as the state-controlled media, which controls most of the content, related declining living standards to the West's efforts of restraining Russia's increasing influence through sanctions. This deflected the anger of Russian citizens away from Russia's perverse foreign policy to the West's supposed “imperialistic culture."
As a result, the average Russian’s perception of the United States and the European Union worsened substantially. According to the Levada Center, Russia’s leading independent polling agency, the number of Russians with a positive perception of the United States declined from 43 percent in January 2014 to 31 percent in September 2017, hitting an all-time low of 12 percent in the process in January 2015. A similar pattern, meanwhile, was recorded regarding the European Union with the number declining from 51 percent in January 2014 to 38 percent in August 2017 while hitting an all-time low of 19 percent in September 2015.
If sanctions fail to fulfill their main goal and create perverse unintended consequences, why are they still in place? These unforeseen consequences have further strengthened Vladimir Putin’s hold on Russia. Our President benefits from the lack of ideas and worsening living conditions that make him look like a defender of Russia from the Western world. According to Levada Center, Mr. Putin’s approval ranking has skyrocketed from 65 percent in January 2014 to 82 percent in October 2017, with the highest approval, 89 percent, in June 2015.
Sanctions Don't Do What They're Supposed To
Given the disadvantages of sanctions to Russian society, one might hope that the policies were at least successful at restraining Russian militarism. But as could be seen by the end of 2017, that is clearly not the case. Russia is in control of Crimea, and the conflict is still raging in Eastern Ukraine. The pressure is building up in the Baltic states due to the accumulation of Russian military near the border, and its military is involved in the Syrian conflict.
If sanctions fail to fulfill their main goal and create perverse unintended consequences, why are they still in place? The policy is rightly imposed on some individuals from the Russian elite, since criminals should not be allowed into civilized countries. But it doesn’t make much sense to punish innocent people whose hearts and minds one wishes to win over. Indeed, if the United States and its allies truly wish to export their values to Russia, they should begin by eliminating economic sanctions that put an unnecessary economic burden on those who have no say on influencing Russia’s foreign policy.
The elimination of sanctions will allow for the flow of ideas about economic and personal liberty since more Russians would be able to travel and observe different ways of life. The change in my system of values was a direct result of coming to the United States. While observing higher standards of living, religious and ethnic tolerance, as well as free speech, I began to question my beliefs. I have searched for answers that could explain the disparities that exist between my homeland and the United States. The people I have met were able to provide those answers, immensely contributing to my appreciation of Western values.