Russia bans some foods from U.S., E.U.


A woman shops at a supermarket in Moscow. In response to Western countries’ sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has returned fire with bans on food imports. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

— Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday ordered one-year limitations on food and agricultural imports from countries that have issued sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine, a step that could clear supermarket shelves of French cheese, Australian beef and U.S. chicken in this import-heavy country.

The decree — which left open what would be banned and limited — came in response to a fresh round of United States and European Union sanctions after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine. U.S. and E.U. officials have accused Russia of providing the antiaircraft missile that shot down the jetliner, which Russia has denied.

The order directed Russian government agencies to draw up lists of imports to be banned and limited. It was a significant step in a nation that produces only a portion of its food needs, though the immediate effect remained unclear without the details. Any ban had the potential to affect not only the chic Moscow boutiques that stock pricey imported cheeses and cold cuts but also food processors who sell products to ordinary Russian consumers around the country.

The decree was being executed “with the goal of defending the national interests of the Russian Federation,” the order said. Imports from countries that have sanctioned Russia will be “banned or limited” for a year, although measures will also be taken to prevent “the accelerated growth” of food and agricultural prices.

A Russian media report said Wednesday that the ban will extend to all U.S. agricultural imports and to fruits and vegetables from the European Union.

“Everything that is produced and imported to Russia from the United States will be banned,” said Alexey Alekseenko, an aide to the head of Russia’s food regulatory agency, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency.

The list of banned and limited products will be approved Thursday, a spokeswoman for Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told Vedomosti, an independent business newspaper. Vedomosti, citing an unnamed government source, said that the list would include different types of vegetable, fruit and meat products but that it would not include wine or baby food.

Russia has been hit with sanctions from the 28-nation European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and Ukraine. Russian imports of U.S. agricultural products total about $1 billion a year. From the European Union, the figure was $15.8 billion in 2013. Imports include grains and other raw products that feed Russia’s 144 million residents.

Part of Putin’s 14-year-long grasp on power has depended on the acquiescence of a prosperous middle class whose members enjoyed the wide variety of imported foods on store shelves in Russia’s urban centers. Those people may be affected more quickly by the food ban than by Western sanctions that have targeted areas of the economy that are more likely to hit a small sector of the wealthiest Russians.

But one analyst said Wednesday that an equally important audience for the food ban may be a different part of the domestic population: Russia’s nonurban provinces, where Putin draws much of his political support.

“The idea is that the Russian agricultural sector suffers from competition with Western agricultural producers and producers in the Third World,” said Grigory Golosov, a political science professor at the European University at St. Petersburg. In the provinces, Golosov said, there is a popular conception that “if food imports were reduced, it would revitalize Russian agriculture.”

In reality, he said, “of course it will hurt consumers.”

The restrictions may drive up the price of ordinary foodstuffs by shrinking supply as demand remains constant. Even many domestically produced foods in Russia depend on foreign imports for some of their ingredients. Russia is already contending with rising inflation, and the ruble has slipped 9.2 percent against the dollar since the beginning of the year.

One U.S. trade advocate said the measures could hit Russians harder than they hit U.S. exporters.

“This could end up, if this really happens, increasing the cost of protein for Russian consumers,” said James Sumner, president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, a trade group. Russian officials have mentioned U.S. poultry as a possible target of trade barriers. The sector has been targeted during previous political tiffs.

Also Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to threaten the partial closure of Russian airspace to Western airlines in retaliation for the sanctions, which squeezed Russia’s financial, energy and defense sectors. A new low-cost Russian airline, Dobrolet, was forced to ground its flights to the annexed Crimean peninsula after the leases on its planes were affected by sanctions adopted last week.

“Everyone probably knows how actively the Russian airspace is being used by airline companies from various countries, including European, American and Asian ones,” Lavrov said, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. “I am not in favor of using prohibitive methods to create real problems for passengers, ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with what is being done in Ukraine by those who started this war.”

He was responding to a question about reports in Russian newspapers that airspace may be closed to Western airlines that cross Russian airspace en route to Asia.

“I won’t comment on the rumors,” Lavrov said. “We expect our Western partners to think about their companies and their citizens.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted a Twitter account attributed to a top Kremlin adviser, Vladislav Surkov. The account is not his. The reference has been deleted.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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