Russia is not afraid of Western sanctions because of a whole bunch of solid reasons. Here are the main ones:
1. Stiff upper lip á la Russe
“Afraid” in Russian power games is the same as “weak”. You play that game, you never admit weakness. The day President Putin publicly shows weakness, he will be torn to shreds by his own wild pack of oligarchs and silovikí (“men in uniform”) he keeps around him.
Because “if he can’t protect himself, how can he protect us”?
2. Chock-full coffers
Wise from the scene of the spectacular bankruptcy of the USSR in the early 1990s, President Putin did his utmost to never go broke come hell or high water. We have little external debt, more than half a trillion in the reserves, and current petroleum prices well above the magic Hendrix Number.
If Russia somehow loses this game, it won’t be out of poverty.
3. Toothless sanctions
The sanctions applied by the West don’t really bite.
Technology transfers to the petroleum sector and defense-related industries formally stopped. But there’s still such a wonderful thing as stealing technological secrets. It’s cheap, and our spies have been famous for their skills since the Soviet era.
The looming threat of losing the stashes in foreign offshores and the properties in the West is certainly a nuisance. But it didn’t seem to happen in notable quantities so far. The West constantly pushes back measures that bite to the day when Russia might escalate from annoying to threatening. And Putin is very cautious in not overstepping the line.
4. Chinese option
Becoming China’s junior partner and extractive backyard hurts our national ego for sure. But it feels reassuring in playing the games of chicken with the Americans. If everything goes terribly wrong, they give us a hand, won’t they?
Besides, the global economy more and more shifts away from the West.
So when the going gets tough, we can simply shutter our western doors and windows. We’ll plunge into the “global solitude” selling spice to Asian and Pacific nations the way we did to Europe.
5. Fractured opposition
Russia nowadays is epically united like we were under Soviet rule. Meanwhile, Western societies are teeming with dissenters, skeptics, Putinverstehers, and people keen on playing footsie with the Kremlin for financial and political gains.
Besides, political cycles in the West between elections are ridiculously short compared with how our President-for-life operates. Sooner or later, someone might come to the top in some Western capital who finally breaks formation. Trump may return. Or careful Schröderization one day hopefully brings us a windfall.
6. Nationalization of the elites
Clouds have silver linings. Sanctions are like clouds. Our political class is secretly very liberal and Western-minded. If the winds turn, a tsunami of defections can happen among those who keep their stashes, properties, and families in the West. This is one of Putin’s concerns.
The more sanctions freeze our oligarchs out of their Western estates and enterprises, the more their fate is tied to Putin’s survival. He calls it “nationalization of the elites”. If “sanctions from Hell” really happen, it’ll seriously erode the secret bonds that tie our best 100,000 families to Europe and the US.
Getting afoot our own food production for import substitution is also a good thing. The Germans didn’t lose WW1 on the battlefield, they ran out of food. Won’t happen to us.
Above, is a painting “Putin steals the rainbow from gays”, by a 9-year old schoolboy Antón Morózov.
The motif reflects our President’s superb skill in using the power of imagery and myth in his politics.
His line of confrontation with the West might rob our country of the political and economic dynamism we experienced under his early reign. But it ensures stability and the calm that seem to be in such short supply in the rest of the world nowadays.