For average Russians, Western sanctions over the Ukraine war are starting to bite

MOSCOW — Viktoriya and Yevgeny Vinnikov carefully planned a trip to Bulgaria this month, even traveling hundreds of kilometers to obtain a Covid-19 vaccine that would allow them entry into the European Union.

They were booked with Hungarian budget airline Wizz Air and had reservations at a cozy hotel in the capital Sofia and the ancient city of Plovdiv to the south.

Then came the sanctions.

After Western countries, including European nations, closed their airspace, Russia hit back, banning flights by airlines from 36 countries, including Hungary. As a result, the Vinnikovs’ vacation was canceled. The couple does not know when they will be able to travel abroad again.

“We used to go abroad at least twice a year,” said Ms. Vinnikov, a 56-year-old real estate agent, adding that the canceled trip was a gift from her husband for International Women’s Day on March 8.

Since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last month, the US and Europe have imposed a package of punitive sanctions on the Russian economy, including restrictions on Russia’s central bank and restricting other major Russian banks’ access to the dollar and other reserve currencies. Plans are also in the works to sever some Russian lenders from the Swift global payment messaging system.

The effects have already started to reverberate.

Long lines have formed outside some banks as Russians rush to withdraw hard currencies.


Photo:

Artyom Geodakyan/tass/Zuma Press

Long lines have formed outside some banks as the ruble continues to plummet and Russians rush to withdraw hard currencies. Cinemas were forced to cancel showing American films after US studios Disney,

Warner and Sony stopped releasing films in Russia.

Netflix customers in Russia could not pay for their subscriptions with credit cards issued by some Russian banks, including Sberbank,

Russia’s largest bank and target of US sanctions. The problem was soon fixed, according to Netflix.

Some Russians put plans to buy a new home on hold after mortgage rates more than doubled to 20%. Meanwhile, Russians have started stocking up on products like foreign medicines, fearing they could run out or run out in the coming weeks and months. Around 55% of Russian medicines are imported, according to 2021 data from DSM Group, a Moscow-based marketing agency specializing in pharmaceutical market research.

Olga Sazonova, 60, a St Petersburg-based trainer and psychologist who offers what she describes as “mindfulness-body tours” to Europe and beyond, was scheduled to take a group of 12 people to the Maldives in April. This trip has now been postponed and she is awaiting a refund of her deposit from the hotel.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the US and allied countries have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. WSJ’s Shelby Holliday discusses how these sanctions are affecting everyone from President Vladimir Putin to ordinary Russian citizens. Photo: Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press

Real estate agent Tatyana Johnson said the rise in mortgage rates had crippled the plans of several of her clients who were planning to take out a mortgage. At least two customers who were about to buy second homes at a rate of 11% before the sanctions abandoned their plans.

“Of course it has become unbearable,” she said.

Ms Johnson also had plans to fly to Serbia on February 26, two days after the first sanctions were imposed. But the flight bans ruined those plans. While her airfare was refunded, Ms Johnson lost her hotel prepayment.

“The sanctions were unjustified” because they hurt ordinary people, Ms Johnson said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that “Russia’s economy has taken a serious hit,” but he insisted “we’re still standing.”

Commuters at a Moscow metro station. The pain of Western sanctions will spread to much of the population over the next few months, an analyst says.


Photo:

Mikhail Tereshchenko/Zuma Press

The Kremlin has retaliated against Western sanctions, including banning Russian residents from lending to foreigners and ordering exporters to sell 80% of their foreign exchange earnings from exports. The government has also announced that it would spend 1 trillion rubles, the equivalent of about $9 billion, to buy shares in Russian companies.

Nonetheless, “the current situation is very difficult,” said Stepan Goncharov, an analyst at the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling institute. “It will have long-term consequences. It will not only affect the middle class, but also the lower class, which is larger. You will also feel this change in your normal life.”

Mr Goncharov said these sanctions could have far-reaching domestic political ramifications as low-income Russians, who will bear the brunt of the sanctions, form the core political base of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russian tech-savvy youth, who are more globally connected and largely opposed to the Kremlin’s military campaign, will also feel the pinch, Mr Goncharov said, adding that the pain will spread to much of the population in the coming months.

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“I think for sanctions [people] will blame the European countries and the US,” said Mr. Goncharov. “But of course living standards will fall and the government will be blamed for that for not being able to make the economy self-sufficient and defend the common people, and of course some of that blame will also fall on the President.”

Thousands of Russians took to the streets in several cities last week to protest the war. Authorities used force to disperse them and have since arrested nearly 6,900 for taking part in unauthorized demonstrations, according to OVD-Info, an activist group that monitors police arrests. Russian authorities have since quickly suppressed other spontaneous demonstrations.

On Wednesday, a post on the Twitter account of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny urged Russians around the world to protest the authorities’ attempts to quash opposition to the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine.

“We must grit our teeth and overcome fear, come out and demand an end to the war. Each person arrested must be replaced by two new arrivals,” the tweet said.

A closed Apple reseller shop in a shopping mall in Omsk, Russia.


Photo:

ALEXEY MALGAVKO/REUTERS

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

write to Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

Corrections & Enhancements
A post on the Twitter account of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny called on Russians to protest the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the opposition leader as Alexander Navalny. (Corrected on March 2nd)

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