Nobody pushes Russia around when Vladimir Putin is running things—no, sir. Russians like that. They like him, if Russian opinion polls are to be believed. Despite the hard times Western economic sanctions have inflicted on Russia in the wake of Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine, in June his approval rating hit 89% (http://tiny.cc/…).
But it’s one thing to cheer Putin for standing up to NATO, quite another to applaud him for destroying food. Even though food prices have risen 21% since the beginning of the year (http://tiny.cc/…), the Putin administration has just ordered—and televised—the bulldozing of 300 tons of fruits, vegetables, fish, meat and dairy products from countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia (http://tiny.cc/…).
“Russians have seen a lot of strange things on state TV under Putin,” writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky (http://tiny.cc/…), “but never before have they been treated to a public cheese execution.”
A few hundred thousand Russians have signed a petition in protest. A Russian Orthodox priest slammed the waste of food in a website post: "In essence, this is a crazy, stupid, vile idea. There are lots of people in our country who could benefit greatly from these goods (http://tiny.cc/…)."
A Moscow Times columnist, Vladimir Frolov, wrote that “The disgraceful plan to destroy embargoed food flies in the face of Orthodox values and the public sentiment traumatized by a history of famine, war and Soviet scarcity (http://tiny.cc/…).”
So why is Putin doing it? Because nobody pushes Vladimir Putin around. In response to the West’s sanctions on Russia last year, he banned food imports from the U.S. and Europe. Apparently these countersanctions didn’t work to his satisfaction. Customs officials were bribed; products were relabeled to disguise their origin. Somehow, Western food got in. This undermines the government’s authority, both domestically and internationally. He can’t have that.
Putin may be taking a political risk in his defiance of public opinion, but then he is by nature a risk-taker. During his years as an espionage agent for the Soviet Union, Jim Hoagland points out in the Washington Post (http://tiny.cc/…), Putin’s “drunken gambler” ways unnerved his bosses. The KGB eventually squeezed him out. Only then did he tap connections to start a political career.
There’s little chance he’ll be squeezed out as Russia’s ruler. Though sanctions have thrown the economy into a recession, many Russians still feel better off than they were before Putin took office (http://tiny.cc/…).
Moreover, the president’s rousing Russian nationalism is generally popular with voters. And just to make sure opponents don’t get uppity, Putin’s regime is cracking down. Russia is, Bershidsky wrote last December, “on the verge of transitioning from mild authoritarianism to outright dictatorship (http://tiny.cc/…).”
So after a year of tit-for-tat sanctions between Russia and the west, a firmly ensconced Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his food crackdown. That cabbage prices doubled and pork prices rose by a third hasn’t deterred him (http://tiny.cc/…). If there was any doubt about that, the bulldozers put it to rest.
Putin’s hope is to replace imports with domestically produced food. His plan may succeed, at least in part, but it will take time. For now, what he has given his countrymen is what the Moscow Times columnist called a “let them eat cake moment.”
But rest assured: Nobody pushes Putin’s Russia around—except Putin.
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