So are the sanctions affecting public opinion?
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Levada Analytical Center fielded nationwide surveys in Russia and the United States to find out what Americans and Russians think of bilateral relations between their nations. Russians are fairly defiant in backing current Russia policies despite the sanctions. Americans approve of the sanctions and want to keep the pressure on.
Conducted in December, the joint survey finds that about two in three Russians say they are not concerned about the political and economic sanctions imposed by Western countries, with 68 percent saying they’re unconcerned compared with 28 percent concerned. Nor are they concerned about how Russia’s official position on Ukraine has left it internationally isolated, with 66 percent saying they’re not concerned, compared with 29 percent who say they are. What’s more, only 15 percent of the Russian public thinks that U.S. economic sanctions are a critical threat to their country.
Here’s how we did our research
The Chicago Council Survey on issues related to Russia was conducted by GfK Custom Research using their national online omnibus service, KnowledgePanel™, between Dec. 1-3 among a weighted national sample of approximately 1,000 American adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The data are weighted according to the Current Population Survey bench marks on gender, age, race, education, census region, household income, homeownership and metropolitan area. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The Levada Center survey was conducted between Dec. 1-5 by the Levada-Center (Levada Analytical Center) with face-to-face interviews conducted among a representative sample of 1,605 Russians ages 18 years and older, living in eight federal districts of the Russian Federation (including Crimea). Inside each district, the sample is distributed among five strata of settlements proportional to the number of people living in them of ages 18 years old or older. The data are weighted according to demographic variables (gender, education, age) and voting preferences. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.
A quick history of the sanctions and their effects (or lack thereof)
First imposed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and backed rebel separatists in eastern Ukraine, the sanctions came at the same time that oil prices dropped dramatically. That hit Russia hard, as oil was and remains a major source of the Russian government’s revenue. Economists have argued that the double shocks of sanctions and low oil prices were major factors in Russia’s financial difficulties in 2014 and 2015. But by 2016, Russia’s economy generally stabilized, even with the sanctions remaining in place.
Russia’s economic recovery may have eased the economic effects of the sanctions on average Russians. Levada surveys conducted between December 2014 and June 2015 found that about one in three Russians said that the sanctions created “significant complications” for themselves and their families, while eight in 10 reported at least “some” complications. But by April, only 19 percent of Russian respondents said that the sanctions had created significant complications for themselves and their families, with 62 percent reporting at least some complications.
There’s a reason that the Russian public was shielded from the sanctions: That’s how they were designed. The United States targeted the sanctions at Putin’s circle of friends rather than at average Russian families. That included restricting credit to particular Russian banks, energy companies and defense firms known to be controlled by his cronies and freezing assets and instituting travel bans on particular individuals. According to the Economist, the measures were “calibrated to avoid rocking global markets” and to win support from the European Union, which also passed sanctions against Moscow.
As a result, the Russian public sees little reason to capitulate to Western demands. In May, a solid Russian majority — 70 percent of the public — said that Moscow should stick to its policies despite sanctions rather than look for compromise to ease the sanctions, supported by only 19 percent. That’s consistent with the results of Levada polls dating to 2014. The December survey found fully 79 percent of Russians said they would oppose “reversing the reunification of Crimea with Russia.” And 58 percent opposed stopping economic and military support of rebel separatists in eastern Ukraine in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.
What do people think about the August round of U.S. sanctions on Russia?
The latest set of U.S. sanctions passed in August with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress. This bill targets people and entities that undermine U.S. cybersecurity on behalf of the Russian government; invest in Russia’s energy export pipelines; help the Syrian government acquire arms; and conduct transactions with Russian defense and intelligence agencies, among others. The legislation also gave Congress new veto power, allowing it to stop President Trump if he tries to lift sanctions against Russia.
But the Trump administration hasn’t yet implemented the sanctions (the bottleneck is in the State Department). In fact, it missed the law’s first deadline on Oct. 1, by which time, it should have issued guidance about which Russian entities in the military and intelligence sectors should be affected. The next implementation deadline is scheduled for the end of this month, by which time the Trump administration should have provided a list of foreign entities that have continued to do business with Russian individuals or entities in the Russian defense or intelligence sectors that have had sanctions imposed on them under the bill.
Surveys show that the American public would like the president to forge ahead.
The Chicago Council December survey finds that seven in 10 Americans believe the Russian government tried to influence the outcome of 2016’s U.S. presidential election, as U.S. intelligence services unanimously report. According to a May Quinnipiac University poll, a majority of Americans are concerned that the Russian government may try to interfere in the 2018 elections. That poll also reports that majorities think that Russia is working against the United States in Syria, with 56 percent believing Russian and U.S. aims are different while only 22 percent believe they’re the same. They also believe Russia and the United States are at odds about improving world cybersecurity, with 59 percent believing the nations’ aims are different while only 19 percent believe they’re the same). And after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine, polls showed that solid majorities said that Russia’s actions violated international law (81 percent) and were unjustified (72 percent).
Sanctions haven’t changed Putin’s foreign policy course. Russia has continued to support rebels in eastern Ukraine, intervened in Syria on behalf of Bashar al-Assad, and hacked into U.S. political organizations.
The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy describes Russia as working to challenge U.S. interests and influence and intimidate its neighbors. A solid majority of Americans support either maintaining (39 percent) or increasing (38 percent) U.S. sanctions against Russia. Taken together, the data seem to show that this impasse won’t be solved any time soon.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.