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Russian food import ban doesn’t shake E.U. resolve on sanctions

August 7, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
Chief foreign correspondent Margaret Warner talks to Gwen Ifill about the U.S. response to Russia’s new ban against most Western food imports, the E.U.’s growing resolve to stand with the U.S. and the growing potential for Russian troops to invade Eastern Ukraine.
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GWEN IFILL: And Margaret joins me now.

So, what was the official response of the administration to this new sanction?

MARGARET WARNER: Interestingly, they didn’t seem terribly fazed by this.

They expected some retaliatory action. The U.S., on an economic level, they didn’t consider this particularly damaging to U.S. companies. They do take it as a sign that Putin is not backing down, however, politically. But, mostly, officials I talked to said they thought it was really misguided and self-defeated.

Now, they may be whistling past the graveyard, as we say, but that one of the things that Russian citizens got at the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, was the freedom, one, to travel and, two, to have all these Western domestic goods. And they have really come to enjoy it.

And one official said to me he could have some cranky domestic constituencies.

GWEN IFILL: Well, they’re getting the Western goods. But how much do their goods — do our goods there constitute our trade?

MARGARET WARNER: Not much.

Looking — looking this figure up, first of all, U.S.-Russia trade last year was only, like, $38 billion total, of which it was only $11 billion of exports, of which only $1.2 billion of that is food.

Now, there is a funny story. The biggest item is poultry, and they’re called Bush legs. These are dark meat…

GWEN IFILL: Bush legs?

MARGARET WARNER: Bush legs, named for George H.W. Bush, who negotiated a deal with Gorbachev back in the early ’90s, to supposedly, in the form of aid, give them all these chicken legs that — apparently, American consumers don’t like dark meat as much anymore as they do chicken breasts — so the — it’s grown into this multimillion-dollar business.

But talked to — or actually reading about the quote from like the Georgia Poultry Export Association, they said, well, we got so tired of the Russians jerking us around, that it used to be 40 percent of our poultry exports went to Russia. Now it’s only 7 percent last year.

So, and his point was, U.S. exporters have diversified, so it’s not a huge hit.

GWEN IFILL: All along in this whole sanction debate, there has been some question about the different interests of the U.S. and Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And so Europe watched this today. And did they think, oh, no, we’re next?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the E.U. put out a tough statement, but they are much more exposed.

For instance, like, it’s $15 billion worth of exports last year into Russia. I did talk to a senior German official who — however, who said, you know, even in the last couple of years, the percentage of our trade with Russia has been going down, in part because Russia economically has been hurting. So German exports were down 5 percent, and then 10 percent.

And they are mostly — what they are, are mostly in things like autos that aren’t affected by this. But other European countries who are heavily dependent on agricultural exports, it will hurt.

GWEN IFILL: Well, they were slow, some of them, some European countries were slow to get on the sanctions bandwagon. Does this sort of thing shake them at all?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that’s what they — that’s why I talked particularly to the Germans.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: Because Merkel was seemingly reluctant, or certainly she’s the one who then finally brought people along.

And he said, to the contrary, and that, in fact, you know, the downing of that airliner, as I think I said last time we discussed this, was really a game-changer in the minds of Europeans, the downing of the airliner and the way the bodies were treated.

And U.S. officials say the same thing, that they have gotten no indication of any of weakening E.U. resolve.

GWEN IFILL: But we are watching very carefully every step. It feels like a very elaborate chess game at this point with Russia.

And we saw today that they decided to extend Edward Snowden’s stay for three more years.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: There are all these little digs along the way. Is this another one of them?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, both the sanctions or the bans and the Snowden.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: I asked one official — one U.S. official, is the Snowden matter related? And he said, well, everything is related.

Russia also signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran this week to buy Iranian crude. Now, whether they go through with that or not, no one knows. But it was another little — another little tweak.

Obama and — President Obama and President Putin talked by phone last Friday and they agreed that sanctions were counterproductive and they needed some sort of a political solution. But there is absolutely no sign, I’m told, of any back-channel negotiations on either side.

GWEN IFILL: Well, speaking of back-channel negotiations, we’re also watching those Russian troops along the border with Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: And, as you reported in your piece, they’re still there. They don’t seem like they’re going anywhere. Is it getting any more tense?

MARGARET WARNER: It is getting more tense, even more tense along the border.

Now, Ukrainian officials I talked to today, who always believed Putin may well invade, said, look, even the troop levels don’t matter so much as they have built this incredible infrastructure. So they have got military hospitals now all set up. They have got the depots. They have got the weapons.

So, he said they could move in 10,000, 20,000 more troops virtually overnight, certainly within a matter of days. And this official also was very concerned that the Ukrainian forces are not making the gains that we’re all reading they are, that he said, a week ago, we were still taking one, two, or three towns a day.

By now, there’s this stalemate. And, as we reported, the separatists are kind of localized in Donetsk and Luhansk. But then the question is, how do they actually — how does Ukraine actually retake these cities?  And American officials are worried that they’re going to set up a kind of Israel-Gaza scenario, as one described to me, where it looks like the Ukrainians that are killing civilians.

GWEN IFILL: And, as with Israel-Gaza, not much hope for negotiated settlement?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, it’s looking a little — as I said, it’s looking bleak.

U.S. officials say that in public or in private it’s — they get the same kind of reaction from the Russians. He said, it’s like Cold War days. And the Ukrainian official told me that now there are splits in the Ukrainian government, which are also getting in the way of this.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Margaret Warner, thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: My pleasure, Gwen.