Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Of Potatoes and Toothpaste

Posted by butalidnl on 27 July 2014

The conflict in Ukraine today seems complicated, with Russia occupying Crimea and instigating rebellion in parts of Ukraine’s east. Actually, it is quite simple: Russia is wasting its efforts and resources in a futile war.  It is sure to lose in both Crimea and Ukraine’s east. Why am I saying so? Because while arms may be the  spectacular components of this struggle; the decisive, long-term, factor would be the availability of less obvious items like potatoes and toothpaste. Russia will fail because of its failure to provide adequate food and consumer goods; and not because of anything in their political and military strategy.

The Russian rebels concentrate mostly on the military and political aspects of their operation. But they fail miserably in terms of public administration and the economy. While they occupy areas of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in Ukraine, economic activity there is crawling to a halt. The rebels operations are financed by Russian ‘help’ and by looting stores and banks. Agricultural production is slowing down; meaning that food shortages would start to be felt soon. The people will literally be running short of potatoes and toothpaste.

Even Crimea, which Russia has occupied, will have a similar problem at a later date. Crimea is a peninsula conencted by land to Ukraine, and separated by a narrow sea strait from Russia. The EU has prohibited the importation of goods from Crimea; and Ukraine has cut its trade with it. While Crimea produces enough wheat, it has to import its potatoes – this time from Turkey. And its supermarkets are running short of toiletries, including toothpaste and deodorant. Crimea’s link to Russia is not really suited to large-scale importations: shipments are mainly by ferry boat or air. And to add to Crimea’s problems: it is completely dependent on Ukraine for its gas, water and electricity.
Russia’s failure to annex southeast Ukraine has meant that Crimea will remain isolated, and that supplies of many consumer products will continue to be scarce and expensive.

ISIS faces a similar problem – it controls a wide area in Syria and Iraq that is landlocked. Its neighbours are not trading with it. Money is not really that useful if others do not want to sell you anything. This ‘Islamic State’ is destined to dry up and fade away with time. (But ISIS could survive as a terrorist guerilla organization for some time, though.)

Unfortunately for Gaza, Israel is adequately supplied with enough potatoes and toothpaste. Gaza, on the other hand, is completely blockaded and depends on Israel for many basic commodities. Thus, Israel can do very much what it wants to do to Gaza. The future of Gaza is bleak.

Afghanistan (which is also landlocked) under the Taliban lasted for decades, one would say. True, but the Afghan economy was never really cut off. Trade went on with its neighbours: Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan during the whole time that the Taliban was in charge of Aghanistan. When Pakistan joined the US fight against the Taliban, it meant that the end was near, since Pakistan was its main trading partner. The arrival of the US military simply hastened the fall of the Taliban.

Politics is not as complicated or unpredictable as it seems. A simple analysis of the economy would predict the outcome most of the time.

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