Obama administration officials scoffed at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new ban on food imports from western countries, dismissing the move Thursday as much more harmful to his own people than to the U.S. or Europe.
Putin announced the ban on imports of certain foods from U.S and European companies in retaliation for sanctions that the Obama administration and the European Union have imposed on his regime for its conduct in Ukraine.
But the move amounts to a “cruel irony” that will limit Russians' access to a substantial part of their food supply, said a senior Treasury Department official.
Some “40% of the food source on an annual basis comes from imports abroad,” said David S. Cohen, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “This goes directly after the Russian people’s access to food.”
“We don’t do that,” said Cohen, noting that U.S. policy has generally avoided targeting food, medicine or medical devices in imposing sanctions on foreign governments.
The criticism came in a morning conference call with reporters called by Cohen and Jason Furman, Obama’s closest economic advisor.
The Russian move is expected to cause some pain in the U.S. and Europe by clamping down on exports to Russia. Obama advisors consider the ban a direct response to the impact of several rounds of economic sanctions against Russian individuals, banks, energy companies and weapons suppliers.
In a news conference on Wednesday, Obama professed confidence that the “sanctions are working as they are supposed to.” But whether they would change Putin's policies remained unknown, he noted.
Obama didn’t rule out providing further military aid to Ukraine if Russia doesn’t change course, and his economic advisors on Thursday were careful not to do so either.
Still, the U.S. is in a position to sustain a long sanctions battle, they suggested, citing the “asymmetry” between the American and Russian economies.
The U.S. has a “large, strong, well-diversified economy,” said Furman, while the Russian economy “is a much smaller, weaker, more poorly diversified economy.”
European economies are more vulnerable to changes in trade with Russia, he said, “but for them it is also a small minority of their GDP at play.”
They all have something greater at stake over the long term, he argued.
“In the long run, there is no doubt that a more stable international order, based on the rule of law where you’re not seeing countries invade neighboring countries, increases economic stability,” said Furman.
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