It appears the U.S. has ruffled some feathers in Moscow. In the latest escalation in the simmering conflict between the United States and Russia over the latter’s actions in its near abroad, Russian president Vladimir Putin on Wednesday placed a ban on the import of agricultural products from the U.S., including poultry.
The edict that Putin signed places a one-year ban on the import of “selected agricultural products, raw materials and food” into the Russian Federation from countries that have levied sanctions against Moscow. “While the law comes into force immediately, the government has been tasked to come up with a concrete list of imports to be banned,” state-owned Russia Today reported on the decree, which effects imports from the United States, European Union, Canada, and Japan. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday laid the groundwork for today’s ban, saying that Russia would soon prepare its response to new Western sanctions. RT also cited Putin as describing “the political tools of pressure being used against the Russian economy as unacceptable” in the lead-up to the signing, and adding “that they go against international rules and norms.”
Russia’s ban on select farm products comes days after it threatened to place tighter limits on American poultry, claiming that salmonella, listeria, and other diseases had been found in shipments of chicken delivered to Russia. These sorts of bans have occurred before in times of Russo-American tension. “Russia has repeatedly been accused by the West of using food safety concerns and its veterinary service as instruments to ban supplies from countries with which it has strained relations or to protect its own industry,” Reuters explained. In this case, the connection between political strife and the imposition of the agriculture ban is more explicit that previous instances.
Over the years, chicken has seemed to be the primary target of Russian ire. An embargo on chicken in 2010 over the use of a chlorine-based sanitizing process, National Journal noted, was considered a “point of pride in Russia, eschewing the Soviet-era days of the early 1990s when the first Bush administration sent over American chicken as food aid. During the South Ossetia War in 2008, Russia blacklisted several American chicken producers over U.S. support for Georgia. And in 2002, when the U.S. raised steel tariffs for foreign trade, Russia stopped importing chickens from the U.S.”
The imposition of sanctions by the U.S. and other Western countries over Russia’s support for rebels in eastern Ukraine has taken a serious toll on Moscow’s economy. Last month, soon after downing of a Malaysian passenger plane over Ukraine, a new round of sanctions were put into place, targeting Russia’s lucrative defense and oil and natural gas sectors. Also among those new sanctions was a suspension of all export credit programs to Russia, including a quashing of loans from the Export-Import Bank. Last year, the U.S. export nearly $1.3 billion worth of agricultural products to Russia, including $329 million worth of meat and poultry alone.
New data from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released on Wednesday showed that U.S. exports to Russia had already plummeted by 34 percent compared to last month, with the Russian economy bearing the brunt of that loss. All told, the International Monetary Fund is warning that Russia — which entered a recession over previous sanctions — could see as much as $100 billion in capital flee over the next year.
The bite from the sanctions, however, appears to have so far not dissuaded Putin from supporting the rebels in Ukraine. NATO on Wednesday went so far as to warn that Russia could be preparing to use the pretext of a humanitarian or peacekeeping mission to invade its neighbor to the west. “We’re not going to guess what’s on Russia’s mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground — and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said in an emailed statement. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov last week suggested the possibility of such a “peacekeeping” mission, specifically in the context of guarding the site where Malaysian flight MH-17 crashed. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a similar warning on Wednesday of a “growing threat” of Russian invasion after meeting with U.S. military leaders in Europe.
Meanwhile, the United Nations warned that the situation in eastern Ukraine is steadily worsening as the Ukrainian army continues its offensive to bring the provinces of Donestk and Luhansk back under Kyiv’s full control. John Ging, the head of the operations division at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told the Security Council on Tuesday that nearly 4 million people in the region are affected by the violence, which has prompted shortages of power and water. Though 1,367 people had already been killed in the fighting, Ging said, there would be “an increase in the numbers killed” without a political solution, insisting that “[i]mmediate action is therefore required to prevent this.”