As Russians scrambled to buy packets of sugar from supermarkets in the days following the invasion of Ukraine, fears of food shortages emerged as the first visible signs of Western sanctions likely to have an impact. Stores imposed limits on the purchase of certain products, and President Vladimir Putin’s government rushed to reassure Russians that they would have enough to eat.
Putin’s regime is not known for telling the truth, as the world has seen through its invasion of Ukraine and disinformation campaign. But even as Russians face shortages of everything from smartphones and cars to paper, experts say there are one area where the country might really be able to largely insulate itself from the sanctions that have otherwise ravaged the economy: food security.
Since 2014, when Russia’s annexation of Crimea sparked a wave of targeted sanctions, the Kremlin has been preparing for the possibility of broader economic punishment from the West. Through a massive import substitution program, he has attempted to reduce the Russian economy’s dependence on imports by developing domestic industries in all sectors over the past eight years. Although these efforts have failed in most areas, they have yielded some success in food and agriculture.
Shortly after invading Crimea, Moscow banned the import of food from countries that imposed sanctions on Russia. At the same time, he unveiled major subsidies to domestic farmers and agri-tech companies to boost the country’s food manufacturing capacity. The result: In 2020, Russia’s meat import requirements were 62% lower than in 2014, while fish imports fell by 35%, according to UN Comtrade data. The world’s largest wheat exporter, Russia has also temporarily banned the sale of grain to neighboring countries, further bolstering stocks for its domestic consumption.
“Today, Russia produces enough staple foods to avoid significant shortages,” said Denis Davydov, a lecturer in accounting and finance at the University of Vaasa, Finland, who has closely followed the Russian economy over the past decade.
It is a major change for a country which throughout its modern history has suffered from desperate famines, food shortages and shortages of bread, which weakened the authority of Tsar Nicholas II and the Soviet regime which monitoring. Putin appears to have learned at least some lessons from the follies of his predecessors, analysts say.
The first seeds of Russia’s move towards agricultural self-sufficiency were planted in 2010, when the country introduced a food security doctrine that set targets for domestic production of everything from salt and sugar to meat. and potatoes. But that document was not translated into actual policies at the time, said David Laborde and Joseph Glauber, researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The economic sanctions that Russia faced in 2014 marked a turning point. The Kremlin’s subsequent focus on reducing Russia’s dependence on food imports reflects its careful preparation for even tougher sanctions of the kind the country faces today, Stephen said. Wegren, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, whose research focuses on the political economy of the post office. -Communist States. “I think an important factor has been the goal of making the Russian agricultural sector resistant to sanctions,” Wegren said. “National security has been a driving force.”
Weather has helped Russian agriculture in recent years, Wegren said. Warming temperatures due to climate change have enabled agriculture in parts of the country that were previously too cold for cultivation. Meanwhile, the devaluation of the Russian ruble following the 2014 sanctions “just made any remaining imported food products uncompetitive with domestic analogues”, further helping the local agricultural sector, Davydov said.
But it wasn’t all luck: the Putin administration also worked proactively to get Russians to switch palaces, said Laborde and Glauber. Instead of rapeseed oil, which is partly imported, Russia has encouraged the use of sunflower oil — the country is behind only Ukraine in the production of sunflower seeds. Likewise, beer – which relies on grain produced by Russia – is replacing imported wine, they said, even as Russians shift away from alcohol overall. “There is an economic rationale for these successes,” Laborde and Glauber said.
To be sure, Russia’s food security successes have serious limitations and the country will face challenges in the months ahead. It still depends on the import of some key foods. In 2020, the country managed to reduce its spending on imported fruit by just 20% compared to 2013, according to the National Rating Agency, an independent rating institution based in Moscow. Russia is also the world’s fourth largest importer of butter.
Over time, the sanctions could start hurting even sectors of Russia’s food industry where domestic production has increased significantly, as the country’s agricultural sector “is highly dependent on imported agricultural equipment and machinery”, Davydov said. “The efficiency and costs of food production will depend on whether we can continue to import this equipment or redirect imports from other countries.” Where imports are still possible, they will be more expensive in the future if the ruble – which has stabilized for now after falling in February and March – suffers further blows.
Meanwhile, the Russian Central Bank’s decision to raise interest rates to a record 20% to rein in inflation will negatively affect lending rates for businesses that need to borrow money. to purchase or maintain equipment. “More expensive financing will obviously mean higher product prices,” Davydov said. Already, the absence of foreign competitors has led to sharp increases in food prices in recent years: beef is now four times more expensive than in March 2014. Experts are convinced that this trend will continue.
Yet Russia’s self-sufficiency in many food staples means it can still import the rest of the “friendly” countries, Wegren said. China, one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters, is unlikely to impose sanctions on Russia.
“There may be localized shortages, but I don’t expect mass hunger,” Wegren said.
It is good news for Putin. In February 1917, food riots caused by bread shortages were the catalysts for the Russian Revolution later that year, in which the Bolsheviks dethroned the Tsar. Whatever happens to the current Russian autocrat, food probably won’t bring him down.
Charu Kasturi is a freelance writer specializing in foreign affairs. He is based in Bangalore, India and often writes for outlets such as Al Jazeera and Foreign Policy.