Russia eased its food embargo on the U.S., EU, Canada, Australia, Ukraine, and several other countries yesterday, lifting its ban on the import of products used exclusively for baby food production. The green-lighted items include chicken, frozen veal, and dried or frozen legumes. The Russian Ministry of Agriculture has yet to develop regulations on how importers would prove their products are meant solely to be used in producing baby food.
The food embargo was imposed by the Kremlin in August of 2014 in retaliation for Western financial sanctions tied to the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. Signing the executive order, Russian President Vladimir Putin officially defended the ban as necessary for “protecting national interests”. The rhetoric coming out of officials and state-owned media outlets was jarringly different: The Kremlin was eager to punish Europe, and it would do so because the Russian market was important enough to hit the European economy hard. A year later, European farmers, though struggling with cash-flow, have found ways to redirect exports. Meanwhile, Russians ended up with empty shelves in grocery stores and prices that have doubled, and in some cases even tripled.
On its face, the food ban appears so irrational that many Putin supporters, who subscribe to the state’s aggressive propaganda wholesale, are still sure that it was Europe that sanctioned Russia with a food export embargo. But after video footage depicting tanks destroying smuggled European food hit the Russian airwaves, the euphoria subsided some, and the first signs of rational discourse started to make an appearance. The Audit Chamber, a government spending watchdog, reported that Russia could face a deficit of meat and dairy products in 2016 due to embargo.
And despite the fact that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev just prolonged food ban for a year, it’s quite possible that a full lifting of the ban is in the cards. For one, Medvedev is not the decider in Russia, and the Russian President would not think twice before overriding him. And Putin is trying hard to get Western sanctions on Russia lifted. There is ample evidence that European leaders—including even Angela Merkel—are wavering in their resolve. Tempting the farm lobby with some easing only adds pressure in Western capitals. (For a more detailed take on Putin’s strategies ahead of upcoming EU summit in June, read this excellent interview with Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky.)
And finally, even if the EU does not lift sanctions to the extent Putin would like, the Russian food embargo could be lifted de facto, if not quite de iure. The above-mentioned loophole regarding baby food is a case in point, but it’s not the only one. Before it, one exception was made for lactose-free dairy products, and another allowed for the import food supplements for Russian athletes. Today’s system is premised on a basic unwritten rule, brilliantly formulated by the famous Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin 150 years ago: “The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by their non-performance.”