Tag: russia

Russia Imposes Embargo on Itself

The American economist Henry George wrote, “What protection teaches us, is to do to ourselves in time of peace what enemies seek to do to us in time of war.” In Russia, Vladimir Putin started a war and then, in response to mild American and European sanctions, retaliated by imposing greater sanctions—on his own people.

Even American journalists, whose economic acumen I have been known to question, have noted the likely effects of Putin’s sanctions. See Michael Birnbaum in the Washington Post:

Russia on Thursday banned most imports of Western food products, a sweeping escalation in an economic war that will deal a multibillion-dollar hit to affected nations but will also unreel wide-ranging consequences at home.

The measures were a signal that Russia is not backing down from a confrontation that has sent Western-Russian tensions to heights not seen since the Cold War—and that it is willing to risk barer shelves and higher food prices at home in the name of striking a blow against countries that have tried to punish it over its role in the Ukraine conflict.

Russia has suspended imports of meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and milk products from the United States, the 28-nation European Union, Norway, Canada and Australia for a year. The move came in retaliation for sanctions those countries imposed on Russia….

In Russia, the food measures promised to hit not just city centers, where the urban middle class has grown accustomed to visiting supermarkets overflowing with high-quality imported European cheeses, fish and sausages. Analysts warned that food prices also would increase and that a wide range of Russian industries, including food processing plants, shippers and retailers, would be affected….

“It will be quite sensitive,” said Yevsey Gurvich, the head of the Economic Expert Group. “Not only rich people will feel it, but literally every family will be affected.” He said he estimated that Russian consumer prices would go up 2 percent this year because of the measures.

“Alternatives to imported foods will be more costly, and, anyway, I believe they will be insufficient, and our supplies will diminish. And, hence, prices will go up,” he said.

Americans who wished for more painful sanctions on Russia than President Obama has imposed are getting their wish—thanks to Putin. 

Russia, Sanctions, and Food

The Russian government announced on August 6 that it will ban imports of most food and agricultural products from Australia, Canada, the European Union, Norway and the United States for one year.  The full extent of the ban, as well as its effects on exporters and Russian consumers, are not yet clear.  It is interesting, though, to contrast this action with an earlier effort to use food sanctions as a diplomatic weapon:  the 1980 embargo of U.S. grain sales to the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 with 80,000 troops and 1800 tanks.  President Carter responded by cancelling private contracts to supply 17 million metric tons (MMT) of U.S. wheat and corn to the Soviet Union.  However, he chose to allow shipment of 8 MMT that had been agreed as part of the 1975 U.S.-Soviet Grains Agreement.  Sales in excess of the level assured in the Grains Agreement were embargoed.

Because grains are relatively fungible, and because numerous countries had surpluses available for export, the Soviets were able to replace most of the embargoed grain from willing suppliers.  Argentine agriculture did particularly well during that timeframe.  U.S. agriculture did not do so well.  Market prices had been relatively high, in large part due to strong export demand.  When a considerable portion of that demand evaporated with the stroke of a pen, commodity prices fell precipitously. 

The grain embargo became a potent political issue in the 1980 presidential campaign.  Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the embargo helped to boost his campaign in rural areas.  He took office in January 1981 and revoked the embargo three months later.

In retrospect, the grain embargo generally is seen as supporting the proposition that economic sanctions often inflict greater costs on the country imposing them than on the country at which they are aimed.

The new sanctions are expected to cut off some $15 billion in Russian imports from the EU.  Russia has been Europe’s second largest (behind the United States) export market for foodstuffs, accounting for 10 percent of the EU’s total foreign sales.  The United States has a smaller stake, with only $1.3 billion of food/ag exports to Russia.  That country has been the third largest market for U.S. poultry exports.  About 7 percent of U.S. poultry exports – valued at over $300 million – were shipped to Russia last year, down from 20 percent as recently as 2008.  Russia’s WTO commitments should prevent import restrictions based on political pressures.  Nonetheless, trade in poultry appears to have fluctuated over time in response to the influence of Russia’s domestic poultry producers.  (It’s worth noting that Russia’s import ban does not include either baby food or wine.  It’s not clear how those omissions should be interpreted.)

The Dangers of Waging War by Proxy

The shocking destruction of Malyasian Airlines MH17 is merely the latest in a string of cases in which irresponsible and unaccountable proxies have brought shame and international condemnation down upon the heads of their foreign sponsors. The precise details of how a passenger airliner carrying 298 souls fell from the sky still aren’t known, but, as Jon Lee Anderson notes in the New Yorker, ”however it played out, this sort of tragedy is a natural consequence of giving weapons to violent men who feel that their powerful sponsor allows them to commit crimes with impunity.”

One hopes, once the memorials to the victims are concluded, and friends and families have had time to come grips with their loss, that the MH17 incident will induce greater caution on the part of would-be foreign sponsors the next time they consider arming shadowy rebels. But I’m not that optimistic. It certainly won’t be sufficient to stop all such cases. Advocates will likely claim that the particular proxy group that they favor isn’t at all like the pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, and, thus, that there is nothing to worry about. “Our guys can be trusted with these weapons,” they’ll say. One hopes that skeptics won’t be scorned and ridiculed for voicing concerns. 

For now, the focus is appropriately on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s cynical manipulation of the unrest in Ukraine. And that is where it should stay. I warned more than two months ago that Putin wasn’t the evil genius that some in the West have made him out to be, and that he likely had less control over the separatists in Ukraine than some alleged. His proxies might ignore him if he told them to stand down, I predicted, or do other things that he didn’t entirely support. The downing of a civilian airliner isn’t what I had in mind, but the bottom line is the same: senseless, tragic death. It doesn’t matter that Putin didn’t push the button that launched the missile, or that he didn’t want civilians – especially foreign nationals – targeted. If he provided separatists with weapons capable of causing such destruction, he bears responsibility for their actions. 

That Putin appears to recognize this is proved by his mouthpiece Russia Today’s ham-fisted attempt to shift blame. RT’s initial report that it was caused by a Ukrainian missile fell apart almost immediately. Separatists, with Russian help, were seen trying to cover their tracks by moving SA-11 missile batteries within a few hours of the disaster. Strategic masterminds don’t deny responsibility for military operations that they are proud of. Eisenhower didn’t try to claim that the Normandy landings were a false flag operation. Douglas MacArthur’s forces at Inchon weren’t disguised as little green men. The absurdity of RT’s latest efforts prompted London-based RT reporter Sara Firth to quit in protest. “I couldn’t do it any more,” she told BuzzFeed. “Every single day we’re lying and finding sexier ways to do it.”

In the United States, hawks wasted no time trying to build support for tougher actions against Russia. This was inevitable. Whether any of these measures – including more military aid to Ukraine, more troops in Eastern Europe, and more sanctions – will have the desired effect seems to be beside the point. For my part, I would prefer forcing Putin to stew in the juices of his disastrous proxy war a little longer while the evidence of Russian complicity accumulates. We shouldn’t allow him to divert attention away from this heinous act.

Latvia, the Country Prof. Krugman Loves to Hate, Wins 1st Prize

I constructed a misery index and ranked 89 countries from most to least miserable based on the available data from the Economist Intelligence Unit. My methodology is a simple sum of inflation, bank lending and unemployment rates, minus year-on-year per capita GDP growth. The table below is a sub-ranking of all former Soviet Union (FSU) states contained in my misery index.

For these FSU states, the main contributing factors to misery are high levels of unemployment and high interest rates.

The low misery index scores in Estonia and Lithuania don’t surprise me as I helped both countries establish sound money with the installation of currency boards in 1992 and 1994, respectively. Latvia, a country Paul Krugman loves to hate, takes the prize for the least miserable of the former Soviet Union countries in this sub-ranking.

NATO - What Is It Good For?

With continuing instability in Ukraine, and Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski allegedly using vulgar and racist language to disparage the US-Poland alliance, now’s as good a time as any to evaluate what NATO does for Americans.

Not much, I argue in Foreign Policy (online). As I conclude:

NATO has produced some benefits, but the costs to the United States – tens of billions per year, validating Russian nationalist narratives about the West, and infantilizing its European partners – are often ignored. Washington should cut the Europeans loose, and encourage them to cooperate with each other on European security matters. With a combined GDP larger than the United States and a benign threat environment, Europeans are capable of defending themselves, but won’t until Washington makes them.

Please give it a read.

Beware of the Kremlin’s Propaganda

Since the beginning of the turmoil in Ukraine, some have attributed a large part of the blame for the crisis to the European Union and the United States, whose meddling allegedly brought down the President Viktor Yanukovych.

While, as a general rule, the foreign policy of the EU and the US deserve to be criticized on various grounds, it should not be forgotten that other actors are present on the world’s geopolitical scene as well – some of them quite malevolent. The idea that the eclectic, bottom-up movement that fueled the revolution in Kyiv was somehow orchestrated by the United States (and/or by the notoriously unimaginative bureaucrats in Brussels) is grotesque – as is the notion that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is a response to genuine secessionist desires of the citizens of South-Eastern Ukraine.

In short, one needs to be careful to avoid the trap of falling for the propaganda spread by Russia’s current regime, as Alexander McCobin and Eglė Markevičiūtė, both from Students for Liberty, argue here:

It’s much too simplistic to solely condemn the United States for any kind of geopolitical instability in the world. Non-interventionists who sympathize with Russia by condoning Crimea’s secession and blaming the West for the Ukrainian crisis fail to see the larger picture. Putin’s government is one of the least free in the world and is clearly the aggressor in Crimea, as it was even beforehand with its support of the Yanukovych regime that shot and tortured its own citizens on the streets of Kyiv.

[…]

Some libertarians’ Kremlin-style speculation about pro-western Maidan’s meddling in Crimea’s affairs is very similar to what Putin’s soft-power apparatus has been trying to sell in Eastern Europe and CIS countries for at least 15 years. Speaking of the Crimean secession being democratically legitimate is intellectually dishonest given that the referendum was essentially passed at gunpoint with no legitimate choice for the region to remain in Ukraine’s sovereign power.

Don’t Wreck Relations with Russia and China over Syria

Most opponents of the Obama administration’s plan to launch missile strikes against Syria have rightly focused on the possible costs in American blood and treasure if the United States becomes entangled in that country’s civil war. There is, however, a more subtle, yet extremely worrisome, cost: the potential damage to America’s relations with other important nations, especially Russia and China.

Russian leaders have been extremely outspoken in opposing military measures against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially if such actions are taken without approval from the UN Security Council, on which Russia possesses a veto power. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has warned that a U.S.-led attack on Syria could further destabilize the Middle East, proving “catastrophic” for that region and beyond. Moscow has now dispatched three naval vessels to the eastern Mediterranean to show support for Assad and warn Washington against rash action.

China has been less vocal than Russia in criticizing U.S. policy toward Syria, but Beijing is also opposed to the course that the Obama administration has adopted. The Chinese government shares Moscow’s anger at Washington’s growing tendency to bypass the UN Security Council on matters of war and peace. That is a source of discontent that has been building for a decade-and-a-half. Western (especially U.S.) policy regarding Kosovo—both the war in 1999 and the decision to bypass the Council and grant that province independence from Serbia in 2008—became a prominent source of irritation. The U.S.–led invasion of Iraq in 2003, again without Security Council approval, added to the list of Sino-Soviet diplomatic grievances against Washington and its allies. Most recently, the West’s cynical misuse of a Council resolution authorizing air strikes in Libya, supposedly to prevent Muammar Gaddafi’s forces from attacking innocent civilians, antagonized both Beijing and Moscow.

The Obama administration’s transformation of the Libya resolution into a vehicle for regime change makes Russian and Chinese officials especially suspicious that the proposed limited missile strikes to punish Assad for the use of chemical weapons will be perverted in the same fashion. And it is clear that Beijing and Moscow are tired of having Washington disregard their views and flout the interests of their countries.

U.S. leaders need to do a far better job of calculating America’s foreign policy priorities. Maintaining good relations with Russia and China outweigh any theoretical gains that might flow even from a well-executed policy regarding Syria. And the prospects of a meaningful U.S. policy “victory” in that country are midpoint between slim and none.

Conversely, we need cooperation from Moscow and Beijing on a host of important issues. Without Russia’s help, there is little chance for serious progress on nuclear issues, either reducing the bloated U.S. and Russian stockpiles of such weapons or discouraging Iran and other countries from barging into the global nuclear weapons club. China’s cooperation is even more important. Not only is China a major purchaser of U.S. government debt, which in an era of chronic budget deficits is no trivial matter, but the country is an increasingly crucial U.S. trading partner and a vital factor in the overall global economy. An angry, recalcitrant China would not be good for America’s or the world’s economic health.

China is also the most important player in efforts to discourage North Korea from engaging in reckless, destabilizing conduct. During the first half of 2013, Beijing appeared to grow weary of Pyongyang’s disruptive, provocative conduct and began to exert pressure on its obnoxious client. That pressure has been at least one factor in North Korea’s more conciliatory behavior in the past few months. But China will have little incentive to continue that course if Washington tramples on Beijing’s interests in Syria and the rest of the Middle East.

Obama administration officials must avoid policy “tunnel vision.” Pursuing a dubious strategy in Syria is bad enough, even taken in isolation. Doing so when it will likely damage U.S. relations with two major powers in the international system is dangerously myopic.

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