George W. Bush had a way with words that made Mrs Malaprop come across as a precise stylist.
In one of his more memorable pronouncements, Dubya declared: “Our enemies… never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”
Dubya was trying to reassure Americans that his efforts to protect the country matched the efforts of those trying to harm it. Alas, his verbal proficiency wasn’t quite up to the task of enunciating even simple thoughts.
On the other hand, if Col. Putin said the same thing, it would ring true.
There’s no denying that Western sanctions, pathetically inadequate though they are, have done some damage to Russia and the Russians.
Among the Russians who’ve suffered are the few thugs graced with the misnomer ‘businessmen’ in the West. One of them, Gennadi Timchenko, widely believed to be Putin’s personal money launderer, complained the other day of his deprivations.
He can no longer blow his billions in the West, instead having to find a suitable outlet within Russian borders. Timchenko also made the magnanimous, if irrelevant, gesture of claiming he’d happily give every last billion he owns to the government.
That’s like saying you’d happily repay a mortgage loan. The money you borrowed isn’t yours, you merely have the use of it.
Similarly, the ‘oligarchs’ don’t own their capital. At best they have the leasehold on it. The freehold belongs to the source of their wealth: the state and its cutting edge, the KGB/FSB. Which is to say Putin personally.
My heart doesn’t bleed for them. I do feel for ordinary Russians, those who launder their own clothes rather than Putin’s billions. They’re the ones bearing the greatest burden.
That’s the way it always is. Whenever a country loses access to foreign goods, services and commodities, it’s the silent majority of consumers who truly suffer. For example, and it’s one among many, unplugging most Russian banks from the global financial network is rapidly driving the country’s inflation towards double digits.
Incomes are heading in the opposite direction, the rouble is losing value, and the Russians (most of whom already live below what we’d regard as poverty levels) are bearing the brunt.
That’s why protectionism doesn’t work: reducing imports may preserve some jobs in the short run, by transferring more of the production to home industries. But in the long run the rewards of every job will attenuate, consumers will consume less and therefore pump less lifeblood into the veins of local industries.
All told, there’s no doubt that what Russia has always seen as her enemy, the West, is hurting much of the population. That’s why the KGB colonel has decided to hurt it even more.
By announcing a sweeping ban on Western food imports, Putin effectively took Bush’s words and made them flesh. For, while his countersanctions will have only a trivial effect on the West, the damage they’ll do the Russians will be anything but trivial.
Before the 1917 advent of social justice Russia had been the world’s second largest food exporter. And her 1913 exports of cereals exceeded those of the USA, Canada and Argentina combined.
However, social justice demanded that the peasants’ land be confiscated and the most productive peasants shot or sent to concentration camps, followed by all those who resisted social justice.
When whole areas, such as the Ukraine, proved recalcitrant, the previous generation of Putin’s employers would arrive in the autumn, rob the peasants of all their food and grain stocks, then seal the area tight to make sure no one could escape.
The starving peasants would eat their remaining livestock, then horses, then dogs and cats, then their children, then each other. By early spring everyone would be dead. Putin’s alma mater would come back with bulldozers and dump lorries, supplied by Ford and other American manufacturers.
The bulldozers, their blades straining, would push the frozen bodies, millions of them, into ravines, and the dump lorries would fill the nameless graves with earth and lime. Social justice would triumph yet again, to the hosannas of the West’s useful idiots.
The peasants, dead or alive, took their revenge. No one was sowing, tilling or reaping. The supply of food to the cities was cut off, and they too were starving.
Overnight, Russia became the world’s biggest importer of food, reversing the situation existing under the royal tyrants. The official explanation was bad weather, which Russia had to endure non-stop from 1917 to 1991, when talk of social justice became unfashionable and the weather miraculously improved.
The peasants were then offered all sorts of incentives to go back to the land. The offers weren’t taken up with alacrity. The peasants still remembered being given land back in 1917, only then to have it taken away, together with their lives.
Thus, even after the dictatorship of the Party was replaced with that of the KGB (sorry, I mean after Russia became a true democracy), domestic food production remained sluggish.
Hence last year Russia imported $42 billion’s worth of food, while food prices increased by almost 15 per cent on average, with potatoes, that omnipresent staple, becoming 63 per cent dearer, vegetables 23.6 per cent and dairy products 19.4 per cent. Critically, Russia imports almost a third of her meat from the West.
Putin claims that his sanctions won’t affect the living standards of the population, evoking the Soviet-time joke, whose punch line was “Have you tried rat poison?”
His mendacious promise is that the slack left by imports will be taken up by domestic production – that old saw of every protectionist. Even assuming that Russian peasants will rediscover their erstwhile industry and enterprise (an unsafe assumption if I’ve ever heard one), replacing Western imports will take decades – not one year, as Putin lied with his customary fluency.
His sanctions will hurt the Russians without hurting the West very much. For example, Europe’s largest food exporter is France, but even there agriculture accounts for a mere three per cent of GDP, while food makes up only 9.7 percent of French exports, with Russia being a very minor market.
In short, Putin has cut off his nose to spite his face. Or, as the Russian version of the same proverb goes, he gouged his own eye out to make sure his wife’s mother would have a one-eyed son-in-law.
The Russians will soon be hit by a food crisis, but there’s a silver lining to that cloud. Scotch whisky isn’t covered by Putin’s sanctions.