As Western sanctions start to bite, Moscow hits back with its own round of embargoes
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin defended his recent edict ordering the destruction of food brought into the country, in breach of a year-old embargo imposed in retaliation for Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict.
The decision to eliminate the food sparked a rare outburst of public ire, as more than 300,000 people signed a petition asking officials to give the food to the rising number of poor in the crisis-hit nation; in Russia nearly 23 million people live below the poverty line.
Russia’s food safety agency said it destroyed around 180 tonnes of fruit including peaches, nectarines, cherries and grapes that crossed over the border from Belarus, and were “falsely” marked as coming from Turkey. According to the agency, another 40 tonnes of fruit were seized and destroyed at a landfill site close to the border, which was reported in a separate statement. This is in addition to about 319 tonnes of food that was destroyed earlier this month, including some meat from Italy which was burned in a garbage incinerator at Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport.
Last year Moscow banned a slew of food products from the West, ranging from specialties such as Parmesan cheese, pâté and Spanish hams, to staples like apples. Food brought in for private consumption, however, was and still is permitted. Just last week Russia went on to broaden the embargo to include Iceland, a significant fish importer. Other countries included were Montenegro, Albania and Liechtenstein.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Ukraine will be added to the embargo from January 1st next year, when a landmark EU-Ukraine trade deal enters force, unless Kiev makes a deal with Moscow.
In response, the EU formally extended a multi-million-euro aid package to help sanction-hit European fruit and vegetable growers until next year. The European Commission, the executive arm of the 28-nation European Union, said it had “extended until the end of June 2016 the safety net measures for the European fruit and vegetables sector.” This programme has already cost 155 million euros ($170 million).
Farmers in France, Belgium and Germany have staged protests against falling prices, especially for milk and dairy products, following the slack in demand from both the Russian ban and a sharp slowdown in the Chinese market. The Commission said a week ago that new relief for the dairy sector would be in place from October, just as the current programme ends, and run through to February.
Putin, on June 24, extended a ban against most Western food imports until August 2016, saying the longer-than-expected measure would ensure the country’s security. He took the decision after EU foreign ministers said sanctions imposed against Moscow’s banking, oil and defence sectors over its suspected support for rebels in eastern Ukraine would be prolonged until January 2016.
Russia has complained that some importers are circumventing the ban by illegally slapping on new labels that claim the food was produced in neighboring ex-Soviet countries.
The tit-for-tat embargoes are one of the few avenues left to the rival camps, while fighting in Eastern Ukraine between forces loyal to Kiev and pro-Russian paramilitaries continues to grind on. Neither side has the appetite to dramatically increase the stakes, though neither can countenance backing down.
For Putin, Moscow’s ability to influence Ukraine is the fulcrum of Russia’s status as a Great Power. Its tried and tested strategy of propping up friendly autocrats in former Soviet vassals has brought it into inevitable collision with an EU determined to demonstrate that it has the diplomatic clout to match its collective population and economic strength. Twinned with the eastern expansion of NATO, the EU’s ambition of political union stretching from Lisbon to the Caucuses is the nightmare scenario for Russian strategists.
Putin is doubtlessly aware that in cleaving Crimea from Ukraine, he has also removed 1 million pro-Russian voters from the electoral role. Given that the last election saw the pro-Russian candidate win by 700,000 votes, the Crimean annexation has probably guaranteed a victory for pro-western candidates from now on. Thus, unable to control Ukraine through its government, Russia’s only other way of stopping Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO is by sabotage. By destabilising the east, which contributes disproportionately to Ukraine’s economy, Russia can ensure that Ukraine is too much of a basket case to qualify for candidacy for either western institution.
Hence the current Russian strategy: drip feed men and material into Eastern Ukraine, support the rebels just enough to keep the economy in tatters, but not so much as to escalate the fighting beyond a Ukraine. For the EU, who are dependent on Russian oil, gas and coal, while being militarily emasculated after decades of reliance on the US, this is a fight they cannot influence beyond propping up Kiev with soft loans and diplomatic support. For the US, the current stalemate in Ukraine’s east is the least bad option for the moment as it struggles to hold ISIS in check, keep Iran true to its nuclear pledges, all while keeping an eye on a rising China and reckless North Korea.
What next? Western sanctions combined with stubbornly low oil prices are squeezing Russian coffers and limiting options for Russian policy makers. Backed into a corner of their own making, expect to see more patriotic bluster and nationalist gimmicks coming out of the Kremlin in the coming months.