Lviv | Russian lawyer Anya was preparing for an overseas holiday when her country invaded neighbouring Ukraine. Now, concerned about her future as the West sanctions Russia, she’s mulling selling her Moscow apartment and leaving for good.
“I was supposed to pack my bags for an Austrian holiday. Now I pack my apartment. I need hard US currency to protect my wealth and my options,” the 30-year-old tells me via instant messaging app Signal.
“I don’t think they will be prioritising Russian visas right now.”
Ordinary Russians are facing the prospect of higher prices and crimped foreign travel after heavy Western sanctions were imposed on Russia to shut off its economy from the global financial system.
The sanctions have sent the rouble plummeting and pushed international companies to halt sales, cut ties and dump tens of billions of dollars’ worth of investments. Western countries have also moved to ban Russian planes from their airspace.
Russians, wary that sanctions would deal a crippling blow to the economy, have been flocking to banks and ATMs for days, with reports on social media of long lines and machines running out. People in some central European countries rushed to pull money from subsidiaries of Russia’s state-owned Sberbank after the parent bank was hit with international sanctions.
Moscow’s public transport authority has also warned city residents they might experience problems with using Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay because VTB, another Russian bank facing sanctions, handles card payments in Moscow’s metro, buses and trams.
Nikita, 27, a financial services worker, had plans to study at a prestigious British university. But with flights to the UK halted, his student visa is at risk. “The perception of Russians has been completely destroyed,” he says.
Although she understands the role of sanctions, Anya says they must target the rich and powerful, not the public. “Ordinary Russians are poor and believe Putin’s propaganda. They have nothing to lose,” she says of the Russian president.
Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says the co-ordinated sanctions across finance, trade and travel appear to be biting. Turnbull observes that, for decades, Russian billionaires have relied on storing their wealth inside the financial systems of Western democracies.
Former US national security adviser John Bolton says Russian leaders might now be pressured to push ahead with even more aggressive military action to try to succeed in Ukraine. He urges Western nations to take further steps by sanctioning Russia’s oil and gas exports.
In Moscow, Anya says she is “devastated” at Russia’s damaged global reputation.
“We grow up on stories of how the Soviet Union saved the world from the Nazis. Now we are the aggressors. It is a disaster,” she says.
Misha Zelinsky is a Fulbright Scholar based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He is covering the conflict with Russia for The Australian Financial Review.