Russian President Vladimir Putin certainly kicked up some dust Wednesday when he responded to sanctions Western nations had leveled against Russia with sanctions of his own against them. However, their impact, at least on the United States, is expected to be modest.
Russia is banning for one year imports of beef, pork, fish, fruits, vegetables and dairy products from the United States, the 28-member European Union, Canada, Australia and Norway. Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev also said Russia is considering a ban on U.S and European flights over Russian air space, though Russia would forfeit flyover fees.
Less than two weeks ago, the United States and the EU imposed the most stringent set of sanctions yet against Russia for its support of pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, particularly after a Russian missile shot a Malaysian Airlines jet out of the sky, over eastern Ukraine. The West’s sanctions focused on Russian oil and weapons industries as well as state-owned banks.
The chief U.S. item affected is poultry, with imports of roughly $300 million a year to Russia. Yet Russia in February banned U.S. poultry imports (and pork products from the EU) for health reasons. Some members of the EU will be hit harder than others — Norway’s seafood industry, for example, will suffer — but the EU has a mechanism for spreading the economic pain in circumstances such as this.
The sanctions may actually have the greatest impact on Russia, which imports approximately 40 percent of its food. Prices are expected to rise, at least a little, both for high-end food products as well as many items that ordinary Russians eat. Interestingly, alcohol imports were not banned.
President Putin remains immensely popular in Russia for his defiance of the United States and the EU, but that popularity could dip if the sanctions squeeze everyday Russians for any length of time. Yet he and Prime Minister Medvedev apparently regard the impasse as an opportunity to make Russia more self-sufficient, in part by bolstering agricultural production.
The stage appears set for another test of wills between Russia and the West. As unpleasant as conflict by sanctions is, it’s vastly preferable to a shooting war. What’s important now is that the West — particularly members of the EU who depend more on trade with Russia than the United States does — remember why they leveled sanctions against Russia in the first place and remain committed to ending Russia’s interference in Ukraine.