In Red Square, Moscow’s stylish skaters glide expertly under sparkling Christmas holiday lights to the music of Tchaikovsky. Hundreds of strolling Chinese tourists take happy selfies of themselves in front of fairytale Kremlin walls. The Lenin Mausoleum broods over them, irrelevant and unmourned. In the nearby GUM mall, three huge arcades filled with top international-brand boutiques and luxury car dealerships, Chinese tourists spend up on Prada and Hermes.
Every year I visit, central Moscow looks more sparklingly clean and prosperous. The streets are filled with Mercedes and similar luxury cars – often parked with waiting drivers, as their owners shop in glamorous arcades like Passage on Petrovka Street, near the Bolshoi Theatre. If these are oligarchs’ wives or girlfriends, there are a lot of them.
Moscow appears an increasingly thriving, well-ordered and well-mannered civil society, with extensive suburban areas of real middle-class comfort and street chic. Navalny-style dissident politics is a fading memory. Police presence is light, except in railway stations and airports.
Notably missing are English voices. Even in Moscow’s top-end hotels like the Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, I saw few American or British business guests. But the hotels are not hurting: there is a steady stream of European, Middle Eastern and Asian business visitors.
If Western sanctions were intended to hurt the Russian economy and generate public discontent, they have failed utterly. Russia’s Prime Minister Medvedev tweeted on 17 February a clear Russian Government message on sanctions:
"The latest wave of anti-Russian sanctions is related not to our relations with the Americans but to the domestic problems in the United States. Of course, sanctions do not help our economy, and sometimes they hinder development. But they cannot cause major damage.”
Even out in regional industrial cities like Yaroslavl, Russia feels prosperous. Prestige restaurants are full of Russians. First-class fast trains and international airport terminals are full of Russians.
The American and EU sanctions began in 2008, but were significantly tightened after the 2014 events in Ukraine and Donald Trump’s 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton. The sanctions are intended to exclude, alienate, and estrange the Russian state: ugly words for an ugly policy. An embittered Anglo-American political establishment, desperate to tame and contain Trump, seeks to send a hostile message to Russia’s governing elites. Profoundly misreading the resolute Russian mentality, the sanctioneers seek to generate public resentment against powerful elites around Putin, to encourage regime change through puppet ‘liberals’ like the Western-trained activist Navalny .
Such efforts have failed utterly. Russia’s counter-sanctions – shrewdly targeted at European Union food exports – encourage the growth of consumer-based local agribusiness.
At the popular middle-class Danilovsky fresh produce market in the Moscow suburbs, a burgeoning range of respectable locally made cheeses join locally made smallgoods, fish and meats, fruits and vegetables of high quality. From Central Asia and beyond come dazzling arrays of tropical fruits, nuts and spices. Prices are low by Australian standards; though high for working-class Russians. There is a busy and friendly foodie market feel, with lots of chat and banter.
Russia’s everyday clothing mostly comes from China, but a few European firms like Marks and Spencer continue to do well in retail trade.
Western sanctions policy towards Russia has been driven by disastrous Russophobic illusions: that this is a society yearning to be free of the allegedly undemocratic rule of Putin and his oligarch cronies; that the economy is weak (‘a farm and a gas station’); alternatively, that an aggressive Putin seeks to dominate Europe and must be sent a firm Western message of deterrence of expansion.
The sanctions have done no real harm to the Russian economy, but encourage Russia to strengthen her diplomatic links outside Europe: especially with major friend and strategic partner China, but also with countries like Iran, Turkey, India, Iraq, South Korea, the ASEAN countries, and lately even Israel. Russia and China are active traders and aid donors in Africa and Latin America. New international banking and payments systems, not tied to the American dollar –based postwar economic order, are taking shape.
Massive disinformation efforts by anti-Russian organisations like the Atlantic Council in the US and the Integrity initiative in Britain seek to bury these realities in false Russophobic propaganda. But on the ground in Moscow, it is hard to argue with the facts of prosperity, confidence and political stability.
Russia continues to seek to engage diplomatically with the United states, UK and Western Europe on terms of mutual respect. There were plenty of well-known Russian VIP faces at this week’s European Security Conference in Munich. The coolly competent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continues to preach his familiar message that Europe’s security problems cannot be solved without the full participation of Russia. Clear-eyed visitors to Russia would find it hard to disagree with him.
Yet at street level, I got the feeling this time that Russians are pretty disenchanted with the West. They don’t like our politics and prefer not to engage. The poisonous Skripal stitch-up by British agencies, the faked Western allegations of chemical warfare by Damascus, and the persistent hateful Russiagate paranoia in the US, have taken a heavy toll. I sense that many Russians have stopped trying to understand or accommodate NATO governments’ hostility towards them: they are just going to sit out these bad years, and meanwhile look elsewhere for more reliable new partners.
This is not like the First Cold War (1948-91): there is still one shared global market-based economic system. But one senses a consolidation of two hostile power blocs in the world, with less and less disposition to trust one another and work together for peace and global order. Russia, with good reason, is looking more to her East and to her South, and less to the West. Historic US-Russia nuclear arms control treaties are breaking down, with nothing in the pipeline to replace them. Russia-China relations have never been closer, and both countries speak the same language of opposing US global hegemonic designs. It is a dangerous moment.
Tony Kevin, former senior Australian diplomat and author of the travel memoir ‘Return to Moscow’ (UWA Publishing 2017), recently returned from his third independent visit to Russia in four years. He seeks to observe Russia-West relations without ideology or prejudice.