Keith Woodford discusses why understanding Russia can be important to our New Zealand agrifood industries

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By Keith Woodford*

The issue of whether Russia belongs in the West or the East might seem a strange topic for a New Zealand agri-food systems person like me to be discussing. However, political and food systems, and the associated international trade, are joined at the hip. Politics and agricultural trade are always fellow travellers.

These last two weeks, while working in Russia, I have pondered as to where Russia belongs. From a cultural perspective, I have no doubt it is in the West. Yet from a geopolitical perspective it would seem that Russia’s future is more with China in the East. Here, I explore the dichotomy and the contradiction.

The two centres of Russia’s culture and history are Moscow and St Petersburg. Both cities are very European. Both cities have firmly left their Soviet past behind them. Both cities have re-embraced their cultural identity from earlier centuries.

The churches destroyed by Stalin’s vandalism have been painstakingly restored, and even Mr Putin aligns himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and its values. I see many people, both old and young, going into the churches to pray. Soviet-style communism and the fundamental concept of the Soviet Union are now seen as a mistake.

Remarkably, both Moscow and St Petersburg have escaped the ravages of war. Their enemies have tried, but only the Russians know how to fight and win a war on their own territory. And so, both cities still depict the architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries, albeit with also many modern buildings, particularly in Moscow.

This morning, over breakfast in St Petersburg, I listened on the restaurant audio system, first to some American jazz, and then a Russian singer presenting a beautiful accented version of George Harrison’s song about his guitar that gently weeps. I have also been listening to Michael Jackson and Elton John. Yes, the dominant Russian culture comes from the West.

However, the geopolitics of Russia tell a different story. The West does not like Russia, and that is deeply rooted in history. The Cold War is once again in play, for reasons that the Russians find hard to comprehend.

Given Western hostility, including sanctions, then Russia has little option but to find friends elsewhere. And the pathway leads inevitably to China.

From a military perspective, Russia does not really need friends. If attacked, Russia has the technology to destroy the world. It would be crazy for the West to go there. Russia does feel threatened by American actions in both Ukraine and in the ‘Stans’, but it knows it can defend itself. 

From a Russian perspective, the current political situation in the Crimea is very simple. Crimea had been Russian territory for a long time until Mr Khrushchev gave it away to Ukraine when both Ukraine and Russia were part of the Soviet Union.

We can go right back to 1854 when the English Light Brigade, led by befuddled officers, charged up the Crimean Valley of Death to be slaughtered by Russian guns. Just what did the English think they were doing fighting the Russians so far from their English homeland?

The Russians regard Crimea not just as Russian territory – a stance that is very popular within Russia – but of critical importance in providing a warm water port for their navy. As long as Ukraine was friendly to Russia, then the Russians could live with Khrushchev’s historical actions. Once Ukraine turned away, there was only one option.

Quite simply, it does not matter what pressure the West puts on Russia over Crimea, the Russians will never step back. As for Ukraine itself, many Russians are glad they no longer have to support those pesky Ukrainians. Let someone else solve their problems!

Whereas Russia can survive all military pressures, including from America and NATO, it does need economic partners. There are many constraints to economic development, and much of Russia, away from Moscow and St Petersburg, is still very poor. That is where China comes in.

Russia and China together can form an increasingly formidable axis of economic power. Russia has plentiful oil and gas, plus the fundamental sciences, and an agriculture that is grossly under-developed.  

China has the consumers, capital and applied engineering, but lacks sufficient oil and gas, and is still struggling with producing new fundamental science that underpins technology. This Chinese science limitation stems from a schooling system that does not foster independent inquiry.

Surely, there is an irony that the West in general and the Americans in particular are by their actions pushing the Russians and the Chinese to work ever increasingly together.

The cultures of Russia and China do not naturally align, but economic necessity prevails.  It will work because both countries are smart enough to understand that they can have an economic axis without interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

In New Zealand, we have come to recognise that our economic future lies increasingly with the East. But it is an uncomfortable relationship for many, because once again our cultures do not naturally align. We also have a remarkable ability – common in the West – to tell other people as to how they should live their lives.

Somewhere in amongst all of this, it might seem that there is a logic that we might also have a future with Russia. It is hard to see how Russia could ever be our largest trading partner – that role is always going to be for China, as long as once again we don’t try and tell other people how to live their lives. But Russia can also be important as a destination for our food products.

I have previously discussed some relevant aspects of Russian agri-food and cuisine here. I may also have more to say on those specifics at a later time.

Several years ago, the prospect of a free trade agreement between New Zealand and Russia was high on our Government agenda. However, with Cold War politics coming to the fore, New Zealand decided to take a step back. 

New Zealand’s key concern in stepping back was not so much any moral imperative, but the pragmatic need to keep onside with the USA and Europe. Indeed, we trade elsewhere with some truly horrible regimes.

Surely, there is yet another irony here, accentuated by the range of European brands on show in Russia. It could be time to test the waters again.

It may not even need a formal free trade agreement which would annoy our so-called allies. It might just need a change of attitude.


*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. His articles are archived at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.

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