By Patricia Lee Sharpe
For a whole year (just one?) Moscow will not import meat, poultry, dairy, fruit or vegetables from countries that have slapped economic sanctions on Russia. In short: hold the butter; keep sending arms. Re the latter, given the state of Russian industry, how else will Vladimir Putin pursue his imperial ambitions, which presently center on creating a Ukraine so weak and divided that Kiev will have no choice but to depend on Russia?
We should thank Vladimir Putin for giving us a hint of what he really fears. I suspect he’s gambling that the financial pain from the loss of agricultural exports will be deep enough to prevent Europe from joining the U.S. in imposing yet more and yet more biting sanctions for instigating separatism in Eastern Ukraine. It’s common knowledge that major European manufacturing sectors, especially in Germany, but also in France, have for months put profit over principle when it comes to the plight of Ukraine. But that commitment to pure self-interest may be eroding.
A Game Changer?
The downing of a Malaysian airliner blown to bits mid-air by Russian-trained rebels with Russian-supplied equipment changed the equation. Nearly three hundred people died. As if that weren’t bad enough, the rebels barred international inspectors and humanitarian agencies from the debris field, hoping most likely that any evidence clinging to the wreckage would be washed off by rain or abraded by dust. Moscow colluded via silence at the very least. Naturally. Chemical residues would have led to Russian origins. This callous delaying action, more than the actual downing, which could have been accidental, was the game changer. The mutilated bodies of the dead lay on the ground where they had fallen, neglected and putrefying, day after day. In time the whole world recoiled, which left the profit-maximizing European holdouts no choice but to go along with the U.S. and up the sanctions. The question is: will the unanimity continue?
It’s been hard to measure the impact of the economic sanctions so far. Moscow, quite naturally, denies any effect of consequence. However, foreign investment in Russian has declined markedly, and Russian money has been flowing to safer places. None of this is good for the weak Russian economy.
Until the recent round of sanctions, Putin had repeatedly threatened to retaliate without following through. This time, perhaps, he felt he had to respond or become a laughing stock. And so: Begone brie! Down with Danish butter! Take that, American chicken farmers! Actually, blocking foodstuffs from entry is not a radical step. Agricultural commodities play a fairly small role in overall Europe-Russia trade. Though the ban will hurt some countries more than others, maximal punishment it is not. Why did the macho Putin of all people choose to respond so delicately? Is there, perhaps, some reason for choosing the lesser thrust over the greater?
I think there is. To feed his vision of Russia’s imperial greatness (and to wage the war he has very carefully not quite declared in Ukraine) Vladimir Putin needs to import sophisticated military-related items as well as other industrial goods. He needs know-how, too. As for food, he doesn’t need it. Not for calories. Not for politics. As Putin well remembers, Russians spent decades on a strictly locavore diet during the Soviet regime. They can do it again. At least, Putin’s rural supporters can. They’ll hardly notice the difference. They’ll happily make borscht (which is delicious) out of the sturdy root vegetables that grow at Russia’s northern latitudes. They’ll hunt for mushrooms, swill kvass and toss down the vodka. All very traditional. Who needs fancy wines? Under Putin they'll gorge on dreams of recapturing the glory days of the Soviet Union. Oh for the good old times when Moscow inspired respect, fear and obedience from its neighbors—and even made the U.S. tremble.
The considerably enlarged urban middle class of Russia is another matter. From the Putin point of view, in fact, these people are entirely too well integrated into European culture and expectations. They will hate a diet without the delicacies the West produces. They will not happily endure a return to the bad old Soviet days of queuing in sub-zero temperatures to buy a few oranges or a kilo of tough stew beef in order to support a huge military machine. But so what? They aren’t Putin supporters and never have been—and when they try to protest against his increasingly despotic regime he uses fair means and foul to defeat them.
So the butter bit is a clever gambit, co-opting a possible Western sanctions move, while doing very little domestic damage and hopefully (from Putin’s standpoint) leading European industrialists to fear really painful retaliation should the West attempt to impose harsher sanctions on Russia’s already shaky economy.
Russia to the Rescue!
But the wily Mr. Putin didn’t stop there. He had a one-two in mind, evidently. He’s found another way to aid the separatists while pretending to be uninvolved. This one’s a real beaut.
After consistently making it difficult or impossible to funnel international aid to the besieged people of Syria, Vladimir Putin proposes to send an aid cavalcade to succor civilians in Donetsk and other areas held by his hostage-minded separatist allies. You’ve got to hand it to Vladimir Putin. He’s ingenious and very hard to predict. In this case, the best way to call his bluff is to thank him effusively, then insist on inspecting every item at the border and transferring it to international aid workers for distribution to the needy. If Putin objects, we’ll know his real intent. He wants to sneak in well-trained agents disguised as humanitarians. He wants to bolster the rebels’ firepower.
In anticipation of a jaundiced response, perhaps, it’s been announced that the Red Cross will serve as an escort for the aid caravan. In this case, another question needs to be posed and answered. The International Red Cross or a purely Russian branch? If the latter, be aware that there is no such thing as a truly independent non-governmental organization in Russia. Careful search is in order.
Can you say Trojan Horse?