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Are sanctions pushing Russians to ‘rally around the flag’? Not exactly.

- June 15, 2017
Participants at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum gather near an electronic screen showing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who spoke during a session of the forum in St. Petersburg on June 2. (Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters)

Russia has faced Western economic sanctions since the middle of 2014 — but President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have stayed in the stratosphere. That’s true even though Russia’s economy has experienced negative growth rates for two years, and Russian presidential approval has historically been closely correlated with the economy.

In response, many observers argue that economic sanctions have caused Russians to “rally around the flag” rather than turning against the government, as others had hoped. President Trump’s adviser Anthony Scaramucci put it this way:

I think the sanctions had in some ways an opposite effect because of Russian culture. I think the Russians would eat snow if they had to survive. And so for me the sanctions probably galvanized the nation with the nation’s President.

He’s wrong. In a recent working paper, I found little evidence that economic sanctions influenced levels of support for the Russian leadership.

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Here’s how I did my research

To reach this conclusion, I surveyed 2,000 Russians in November, just after the U.S. election. All respondents were asked, “To what extent do you support the Russian leadership (rukovodstvo) on a 5-point scale where 1 equals very negative and 5 equals very positive.”

In the first, baseline group, respondents received no additional information before answering the question. This group’s average level of support for the Russian government was 3.52.

Before answering the question, a second group was reminded that “since 2014 the U.S. had levied sanctions against Russia.” A third group was reminded that “since 2014 the E.U. had levied economic sanctions against Russia.”

If the “rally around the flag” argument was correct, we would expect higher average support for the Russian government in these two groups than in the baseline group. Instead, the second and third groups’ level of support for the Russian government was 3.40 and 3.46, respectively — just a bit lower than the support in the control group. In other words, reminding people about the sanctions had no effect on their support for the Russian government.

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So what does cause Russians to ‘rally around the flag’?

To test the robustness of the finding, I repeated the survey in January with 1,600 respondents across Russia. When respondents received no additional information, their average level of support for the Russian government was 3.59. Reminding respondents of the U.S. sanctions increased support for the Russian government to 3.71, a small increase, but not a statistically significant one (or to be technical, p=.24).

Would the reason for the sanctions matter? To find out, in the January surveys, interviewers reminded another group that the United States had levied economic sanctions after Russia annexed Crimea. When reminded of this, respondents supported the Russian government by 36 percentage points more than the control group (3.95 versus 3.59, p = .00) — a statistically significant increase over those reminded just of U.S. sanctions (3.71 versus 3.59, p = .02). That’s hardly surprising. The annexation of Crimea has been extremely popular in Russia.

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In other words, Russians are indeed rallying around the flag, but because of the wildly popular annexation of Crimea — rather than because of the sanctions themselves. When asking what causes citizens to rally around the flag, researchers and observers may wish to be careful to consider whether such an effect comes from the sanctions — or from the government actions that brought those sanctions on. Simply comparing the presence of sanctions and observing approval ratings for the government is likely to produce misleading results.

What about Russian opinion toward the United States and European Union for imposing sanctions?

The Western sanctions have been narrowly targeted toward firms and individuals directly involved in the decision to annex Crimea or subvert Eastern Ukraine, thus minimizing the costs to the mass public. This may have made it harder for the Russian government to use the sanctions to mobilize public support. In this respect, “smart” sanctions may have worked as intended.

Nevertheless, the sanctions may have turned public opinion against the U.S. government. In our January survey, we also asked respondents to rate their support for the United States on a comparable 1 through 5 scale. Reminding respondents that the United States levied sanctions on Russia reduced support for the United States by 20 percentage points — a statistically significant drop from those who got no information before hearing the question. However, when interviewers suggested to another group of respondents that Donald Trump might weaken the sanctions after taking office, that group supported the United States by 31 percentage points more than those in the baseline group.

In sum, there is scant evidence that economic sanctions against Russia have induced citizens to support their government. But neither is there much evidence that economic sanctions have led Russians to turn against the Russian leadership.

Economic sanctions may be successful in doing other things. They may be an important way that the United States and E.U. are signaling to the Kremlin their opposition to Russian actions in Ukraine.  They may be changing the attitudes of Russian foreign policy elites. They may be hurting Russian corporations’ long-term financing options. But there is not much evidence that they are changing general public opinion toward the Russian government.

Timothy Frye is the chair of the Columbia University political science department and author of “Property Rights and Property Wrongs: How Power, Institutions, and Norms Shape Economic Conflict in Russia” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).