Russian President Vladimir Putin has 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 US 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. US and EU officials have accused Russia of providing the antiaircraft missile that shot down the jet, 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 impact 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.
Those softeners meant that the ban may be more symbolic than hard-hitting - although one top Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov, said on Wednesday on Twitter that he was "going out to buy Scotch whisky."
The list of banned and limited products will be approved on 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.
$1b US agricultural imports
Russia has been hit with sanctions from the 28-nation European Union, the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia and Ukraine. Russian imports of US agricultural products total about $1 billion a year. From the European Union that 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 who enjoyed the wide variety of imported foods on store shelves in Russia's urban centres. 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 an equally important audience for the food ban may also be a different part of the domestic population, one analyst said on Wednesday - Russia's non-urban 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 St. Petersburg European University. In the provinces, Golosov said, there is a popular conception that "if food imports were reduced, it would revitalise Russian agriculture."
In reality, he said, "of course it will hurt consumers."
One US trade advocate said that the measures had the potential to hit Russians harder than it hits US 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 US poultry as a possible target of trade blocks. The sector has been targeted during previous political tiffs.
Also on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov appeared to threaten the partial closure of Russian airspace to Western airlines in retaliation for the sanctions that have put a squeeze on Russia's financial, energy and defence sectors. A new low-cost Russian airline, Dobrolet, was forced to ground its flights to the annexed peninsula of Crimea after the leases on its planes were affected by sanctions enacted 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. I am not in favour 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," Lavrov said, according to Interfax.
He was responding to a question about reports in Russian newspapers that airspace may be closed to Western airlines' flights to Asia that cross over Russian airspace.
"I won't comment on the rumours," he said. "We expect our Western partners to think about their companies and their citizens."
- Washington Post