Book Excerpt: Foiling Predictions, Russians Did Not Go Hungry After 2014

2019 view of Moscow International Business Center. (Dzasohovich, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Natylie Baldwin, Originally Published at Consortium News, 6/3/2020

A common response in the Anglo-American media to Russia’s counter-sanctions against agricultural imports from the United States and EU in 2014 was that Russians would go hungry and were, therefore, shooting themselves in the foot. Within a matter of days of the announcement, however, numerous Latin American countries, namely Argentina and Brazil, got in line to fill the gap, as well as China, which started selling produce directly to Russia.

More importantly, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Russia ranked as one of the top three producers in the world for a range of agricultural products at the time, from various fruits and vegetables to grains, potatoes and poultry. As of 2018, it was the world’s top exporter of wheat. The government has also had plans in place since 2013 to significantly boost the country’s already respectable production of organic produce from small farms and gardens. 

Natural Society reported in May 2014 that 35 million Russian families are growing an impressive percentage of Russia’s fruits and vegetables on 20 million acres:

According to some statistics, they grow 92% of the entire countries’ potatoes, 77% of its vegetables, 87% of its fruit, and feed 71% of the entire population from privately owned organic farms or house gardens all across the country. These aren’t huge Agro-farms run by pharmaceutical companies; these are small family farms and less-than-an-acre gardens.

By autumn 2017, Vladimir Putin had publicly set a goal for Russia to become the world’s top producer and exporter of organic agriculture. In the summer of 2018, the Russian president signed legislation creating official standards, labeling and certification procedures for organic products produced for commercial sale in Russia that went into effect in 2020. Government support will be available to organic farmers, and a public registry will be created listing certified producers.

The agricultural sanctions created some immediate problems, mainly temporary shortages of some meat products and price increases due to the need to work out infrastructure issues to accommodate imports from countries at greater distances.

But Russians did not go hungry, as I witnessed plenty of food in markets, from street vendors, and in restaurants in all cities I visited during my trips in 2015 and 2017. There was, however, concern over price increases.

Author Sharon Tennison, who has traveled throughout Russia extensively since 1983, reported the general attitude of most Russians toward Western sanctions during her trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg in September 2014:

The general outlook of Russians I spoke with is one of quiet confidence, saying that sanctions will turn out good for Russia in the long run––that Russia must become self-sufficient––remarking that Russia became infatuated with foreign products in the 1990s. At that time they felt Russia didn’t need to manufacture high-end products that they could purchase them from other countries. However, the situation has changed. Today production has become the “in” discussion wherever one goes. The sanctions have helped bring this about. Several Russians remarked that they hoped the sanctions lasted for three years or more, since that would give Russians sufficient time to learn to manufacture formerly imported items themselves. The Russian government is offering financial support to entrepreneurs who are ready to move into consumer production.

Sanctions Imposed

In March of 2014, the U.S. and the European Union (EU) began imposing sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its “annexation” of Crimea. These initial sanctions were largely comprised of asset freezes and visa restrictions on certain Russian officials. As the situation in Eastern Ukraine escalated, with rebels taking over local government buildings and demanding autonomy from what they perceived as a coup government in Kiev, the list of individuals targeted for sanctions grew.

After the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 in July 2014, the west imposed more wide-ranging sanctions, which included several Russian banks as well as the defense and energy sectors. In March of 2018, there were diplomatic “sanctions” (expulsions) for the alleged Skirpal poisoning, which Russia responded to with its own expulsions. That same month, there were business/personal sanctions against a number of Russians for their alleged interference in the 2016 elections.

In order to provide the most accurate and comprehensive assessment of the effect of Western sanctions on Russia over the past five years, University of Birmingham professor Richard Connolly, in his 2018 book, “Russia’s Response to Sanctions: How Western Economic Statecraft is Reshaping Political Economy in Russia,” describes how Russia’s economy actually works in order to provide a contextual framework for understanding the success or failure of the West’s policy. He concluded that the ultimate effect of the sanctions is likely not what was intended by Washington policymakers.

Read the full article here.

4 thoughts on “Book Excerpt: Foiling Predictions, Russians Did Not Go Hungry After 2014”

  1. Hi Natylie,
    Some weeks ago German ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder demanded that the sanctions aimed towards Russia be rescinded. Commentators on Yandex News pilloried this decision, saying that the sanctions have benefitted Russia more than they harmed. Sure, the sanctions did stimulate a need for self-sufficiency, but was Schroeder wrong to oppose the sanctions?

    1. Hi Josep,

      I suspect Schroeder’s motivations for wanting to lift sanctions had to do with generally improving relations with Russia. To that end, lifting the sanctions would be a gesture that would send a message that Europe was amenable to repairing relations with Russia and not mindlessly continuing to go along with Washington’s relentless anti-Russia agenda.

  2. In fact, in 2016 Russia’s earnings from sales of agricultural products for the first time surpassed what it earned in arms sales.

    https://www.rt.com/business/358387-russia-agriculture-boom-sanctions/

    It will be a long time, if ever, before the USA can say that. The source is RT, but I find they usually link to their own source, and this was no exception. But the report was from Der Spiegel, and it’s in German. It does lend weight to the contention that Russia is not bothered very much by the sanctions, and while I doubt it agitates for them to remain in place, the administration is likely quietly grateful to the USA for stubbornly keeping them in place, because it has someone to blame for its policies when there are fights for a bigger share of the budget. We can’t do that, Honourable Minister, because the American sanctions force us to invest more in farming, or fabrication of agricultural equipment, or clearing more land for farming, or whatever.

    Supply chains are fickle, and offering loyalty promotes loyalty in return; even when a product once sought-after becomes available again after sanctions are dropped, the former buyer is unlikely to offer the previously-held market share unless there is a major incentive such as a much lower price. Where a Russian buyer has been able to find a market replacement of comparable quality, that buyer is unlikely to offer that market share to a previous vendor who was taken out of the equation by sanctions. It might happen again, and the new vendor has proved himself trustworthy. A lot of those Russian markets for European products are not going to come back at anything like their previous levels. Those producers have marked themselves as suppliers who will cut off their buyers for political leverage, and businesses can’t have that kind of disruption on political whim.

    1. Good points, Mark. It is highly doubtful that most of those old supply chains with EU countries could be resurrected in any significant way.

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