RUSSIA banned most food imports from the West yesterday in retaliation for sanctions over Ukraine – a sweeping move that will cost Western farmers billions of dollars but could also lead to empty shelves in Russian cities.
The decision shows that President Vladimir Putin has no intention of bowing to Western pressure over Ukraine and will instead try to strike back at the West. It also demonstrated that the Kremlin is prepared to inflict damage on Russia while pursuing its course in Ukraine.
The US and the EU have accused Russia, which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March, of fomenting tensions in eastern Ukraine by supplying arms and expertise to a pro-Moscow insurgency, and have imposed asset freezes and loan bans on a score of individuals and companies.
Moscow has rejected the accusations and in turn accused the West of blocking attempts to reach a political settlement by giving a green light to Kiev to crush the mutiny through indiscriminate use of force, swelling civilian casualties.
A sombre-looking Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at a televised cabinet meeting that Russia’s retaliatory ban covered all imports of meat, fish, milk and milk products, as well as fruit and vegetables from the US, the EU, Australia, Canada and Norway. It will last for a year.
“Until the last moment, we hoped that our foreign colleagues would understand that sanctions lead to a deadlock and no one needs them,” he said. “But they didn’t and the situation now requires us to take retaliatory measures.”
Russia depends heavily on imported food – most of it from the West – particularly in big cities such as Moscow.
Medvedev argued that the ban would give Russian farmers, who have struggled to compete with Western produce, a good chance to increase their market share.
But experts said that local producers would find it hard to fill the gap left by the ban, as the nation’s agricultural sector has continued to suffer from poor efficiency and shortage of funds.
While the government claimed it would move quickly to replace Western imports by importing more food from Latin America, Turkey and former Soviet nations to avoid empty shelves and price hikes, analysts predicted the ban would further speed up inflation.
Medvedev said Russia could go further and ban Western airlines from flying over Russia, which would significantly swell costs and increase flight times to Asia.