Vladimir Putin Declares War on American Chicken… Again

How It Works
Aug. 7 2014 10:09 AM

Playing Chicken

A chicken vendor in downtown Moscow.

Photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian government has responded to Western sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine by banning all food imports from the United States as well as fruits and vegetables from Europe. While the economic impact of this move is going to be less severe than the sanctions against Russia, it will be felt in some sectors. Russia is the largest export market for fruits and vegetables from the EU and the second-largest market for U.S. poultry. American exports have already taken a hit due to tension with Russia, and that’s likely to continue now.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

Over the years, the chicken trade has been a reliable barometer of the state of U.S.-Russian relations. In the early 1990s, the U.S. flooded the Russian market with cheap poultry—known locally as “Bush legs”—as a form of food aid. American chicken imports have previously been restricted in 2002, after the U.S. raised steel tariffs; in 2008, during the war with Georgia; and again in 2010, ostensibly because U.S. manufacturers had failed to adhere to food safety regulations. According to an account by journalist Peter Baker, Russian President Vladimir Putin once suggested in a private conversation with George W. Bush that the U.S. has “ separate plants for chickens for America and chickens for Russia.”


Jokes about the poor quality of American chicken are a staple of Russian media coverage. A 2002 New York Times piece included this howler, via the director of a Russian poultry farm: “Take the American chicken-leg quarter, roast it, and what do you have left? Only the skin and bone. The moisture comes out, but there's no meat there. The foreign birds are vaccinated against 12 diseases, and we don't know what they're feeding the birds.” That same NYT story noted a quote from the Russian agriculture minister: “Russia is not a garbage dump for poor quality food.”

Despite this long-standing anti-American-chicken fervor, some commentators are suggesting that Russia’s latest food blockade is economically shortsighted.

After all, Russia imports 40 percent of its food, and the countries sanctioned account for more than half of Russia’s imported meat and fish and 30 percent of its vegetables. A quick switch to domestic sources will drive up prices in an economy already reeling from inflation.

But Putin likely knows exactly what he’s doing. So far, his moves to confront Russia’s adversaries politically in spite of the economic consequences have proved extremely popular with the Russian public. With the import ban, he’s counting on Russians’ willingness to take a hit in the name of national pride rather than taking to the streets. It’s a high-stakes gamble but probably not a reckless one.

The 2010 round of the chicken wars caused a production glut that forced the USDA to buy up $14 million worth of excess poultry. Exports eventually resumed after then-President Dmitry Medvedev’s 2010 visit to Washington, the high point of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia. We’ll have to wait and see if Putin and Obama have their own chicken summit.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
The World
Sept. 23 2014 10:55 AM This Isn’t the Syria Intervention Anyone Wanted
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
The Vault
Sept. 23 2014 10:24 AM How Bad Are Your Drinking Habits? An 18th-Century Temperance Thermometer Has the Verdict.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 9:42 AM Listen to the Surprising New Single From Kendrick Lamar
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google CEO: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.