US-Russia trade tensions and Nebraska’s role

By Russell Stout, Husker Writers

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series of persuasive essays produced in partnership with the University of Nebraska’s Husker Writers program in spring 2019. Students in Prof. Mark Houston’s English 254 course worked with ninth graders at Lincoln High School to research a specific topic embedded with civic engagement during the spring semester. For more on the project, click here.

Author’s Note: With this piece I wanted to appeal to an entirely different audience; before I had been targeting college students or people with an interest in Slavic studies. With this article, I intend to persuade someone with a background in governmental work such as senators or legislators who have sway over the affairs of the state of Nebraska. Individuals who belong to this target audience may or may not have any interest in Russian affairs but would have a vested interest in the Nebraskan economy. Through writing this I hope to spark an interest in a currently untapped market that could not only bolster the Nebraskan economy but potentially bring the two nations together. The hardest part has been parsing through any objections that might arise and searching for any remedies that could either negate or mitigate any problems that might arise. Nebraska is a largely agricultural state and proves to shine in this area with a diverse selection of livestock and crops. Unfortunately, the flooding from the beginning of spring 2019 has left many farmers in ruins. For many of them, this year will be a wash. But by the end of this year, the Russian trade import ban will expire, and Nebraska could use this opportunity to rebuild their economy while helping the Russians in return. Russia has experienced much misfortune in agriculture so that the country and the state of Nebraska surprisingly have something in common. One issue that has come up in writing this is whether or not I adequately address any concerns that the opposition may have to such a proposal. I would encourage any feedback that could help me see if I did a good enough job, or if the piece is still lacking to strengthen any future writing projects I may encounter.

During the last 20 years, the relationship between the United States and Russia has devolved from a new friendship to an icy mistrust of one another. This kind of tension hasn’t been seen since the days of the cold war when everyone was terrified that a nuclear war was imminent. While the plays are roughly the same the game rules have changed. Before the current dispute, the name of the game was who could build the biggest, most devastating weapons, while now it is a more subtle jab at one another in economic matters. The U.S. had filed sanctions on Russian oligarchs and businesses for “belligerent behavior” such as the tampering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Russia has in return imposed an import ban on all products from countries that have filed sanctions against it, particularly in the agricultural sector. Beef, poultry, and pork are amongst the banned imports and are among the top 10 exports for Nebraska. It turns out Nebraska played a significant role in Russian imports; in 2011 alone Nebraska exported $154 million worth of exports to Russia. Since the import ban, the Nebraska Farm Bureau reports losses ranging between $695 million to $1.026 billion in 2018. Part of the way the United States makes up for it is a thriving beef trade with South Korea and Japan.

Russia’s agricultural sector has always proved to be a thorn in its side. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks instituted an economic policy known as War Communism. The government seized all industries and aspects of the economy, beginning a program of centralized state planning. During this time the Soviets imposed forced grain acquisition where any grain surpluses would be collectivized by the state. After 1921 Lenin saw this program was proving to be inefficient and hurting the Soviet economy. In response he created the New Economic Policy, known as the NEP, to allow for a mixed market economy that could stimulate growth and allow small businesses to operate while the government ran large businesses. Lenin would allow foreign aid from America to help struggling farmers, but he did have the Cheka, the precursor to the KGB, keep surveillance on these groups because he thought they were a front for an American intelligence agency.

During the Stalin regime, science could only progress if it conformed to Soviet doctrine. An agronomist by the name of Trofim Lysenko became infamous for his theories (Graham). He proposed that through the manipulation of the environment (changes made to temperature, soil, fertilizer, etc.) he could be able to change a winter wheat variety of grain into a summer wheat grain. In reality, he was only able to produce these results twice, with shady methodology, and fabricated the rest of his findings. But since it fell in line with Stalin’s way of thinking anyone who dared question it was sent to the gulag. Even after Stalin’s death, Khrushchev promoted these findings to the detriment of Russia’s agriculture. Lysenko not only created a field of pseudo-science but if he didn’t like someone he took it as a personal threat and publicly denounced them, attracting the attention of the KGB to that person and thus sealing their fate. Lysenkoism has been a blight on the face of science and has even been compared to eugenics in terms of harmful pseudo-scientific ideas. Apart from its overbearing military-industrial complex and growing opposition to its repressive regime, the pitiful agriculture of the U.S.S.R proved to be one of the nails in its coffin that led to the downfall of the second most powerful nation in the world at that time.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has had two main presidents: Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. Relations with Yeltsin were generally warm but with Putin’s ascent to power tensions have been rising, even with three different U.S. presidents trying to work with him. Russia is currently the 9th largest global economy in Purchasing Parity Power (PPP). Recently President Putin has extended the import ban on American goods that will last until the end of this year. After the ban is lifted it will need to renegotiate what products it will allow in and, more importantly, where they will obtain those goods from. And this is the specialized niche that Nebraska could surprisingly fill.

Russia hasn’t just done trade with the U.S. as a whole; each state brings a unique benefit to trading countries. Although it might be overshadowed by some of the other more powerful states like California or Texas, our very own home state of Nebraska has a lot to offer in terms of economic prosperity. Nebraska is ranked number 4 in the nation for agricultural recipients, beaten only by California, Texas, and Iowa. Its top crops are corn and soybeans. The state’s top five countries it exports to are Canada, Mexico, Japan, China, and South Korea. Agriculture isn’t the only thing Nebraska can bring to the table; back in 2014, Nebraska’s export shipments of agricultural products and other goods totaled $7.9 billion.

Unfortunately, within the past month, Nebraska was hit by floods that damaged much of the state, resulting in a net loss of $400 million in crops and another $400 million in livestock. Many farmers fear they won’t be able to plant crops this year which could lead to bankruptcies, however, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. Although this year proved to be a trying time for Nebraska farmers, by the end of the year and going into next year the Russian import ban will hopefully expire and open up a new market for Nebraskan farmers to rebuild and expand.

Although it would be contingent on the Russian government’s openness to foreign economies, Nebraska could become a huge player in U.S.-Russian relations if it played its cards right. If Nebraska moved quick enough it could, once the ban is lifted, reap large rewards through exporting larger amounts through agricultural goods. It wouldn’t be able to meet every demand, Nebraska’s climate and soil may not be a great place to raise almonds for instance, but it is a significantly more businesses friendly place than California; so much so Russia could find it an easier time working with Nebraska over coastal states.

Some may bring up concerns that Russia could extend the ban or tensions could sour even worse between the two countries. This is a fair point to bring up. While the government could ban all imports, there is currently no ban on doing any business whatsoever with American businesses. One of the ways to become civically engaged would be to get into the private sector side of the issue and start a business, or work within a business, to promote friendlier relations with Russia. This could be achieved in the realm of tech business or consultations on any type of venture. At the moment the Russian economy is over-reliant on its energy sector, particularly oil and natural gas (Forbes). Nebraskan scientists could encourage Russian exploration into green technology to improve their economy while reducing its carbon footprint. We could even help them in the field of agronomy to maybe expand and improve their own crops to better feed their population.

If business is good, Russia could rethink its ban and instead pursue a route that is profitable for both sides. It’s a possibility that this is a problem that could be solved by private enterprise rather than the government. On the flip side the other way people could get involved would be to get in touch with the state government and bring up these issues and show them that working with Russia would open a new market for Nebraska that could bolster the economy while bringing good press to this state for helping to close the rift between these nations for so long.