Those of us on the West Coast of North America, especially those of us ensconced in the metro areas of the Puget Sound, with ports and air access to almost anywhere in the world, have until recently found it relatively simple, if not lucrative, to “Think global and act local.”
Our supplies of everything, from tomatoes to labor, were seemingly endless — and available from either distant global sources or local providers.
Even fuel, from gas to our cars to natural gas to heat our homes, came from or was processed relatively near to us (mostly from Canada, or refined outside of Bellingham).
There was very little that we “needed” that we couldn’t provide for ourselves — and, again, thanks to our ports and programs like Sister Cities, we had family and business connections around the world.
We, in the Puget Sound area were thriving in both areas — local and global.
But, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now.
When the politics are favorable, trade with Russia and China can be promising — as they have been for a few decades now.
Until, that is, it isn’t.
When the Soviet Union dissolved, many Washington industries — from apples to airplanes and many more — considered Russia a promising market.
And it was. The Washington State Department of Agriculture reports that Washington state exported upwards of $12.7 million of apples and $10.3 million of pears to Russia in 2013.
But Washington state apples shipped to Russia declined in 2014. That year, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea from Ukraine.
Following the annexation, the U.S. responded with targeted sanctions, namely on assets owned by Putin’s inner circle.
Russia struck back with much more widespread sanctions, including a ban of many U.S. agricultural products, such as the Washington apples their citizens had enjoyed for many years.
From 2015 on, not a single Washington apple has been sold inside Russia’s borders.
It’s much more than apples
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many private companies have severed ties with Russian companies or suspended operations in the country.
Boeing, for example, will no longer purchase titanium from Russia, has suspended operations in Moscow and for the time being will no longer provide parts, maintenance and technical support services for Russian airlines.
Other industries, from oil to agriculture, were flourishing as trade between the U.S. and Russia expanded.
We had a once thriving Council for U.S.-Russian Relations office in Seattle.
You can imagine how busy they would be if they were open now.
They closed in 2011 — when Putin announced that he would run for president again — essentially as president for life.
A core assumption at the time was that developing and strengthening business relationships was a stabilizing force in U.S.-Russian relations.
Everyone, it seemed, had high hopes that trade and opportunity would make both parties more stable and that capitalism, thanks to magical thinking of the time, would lead Russia to a less autocratic and more democratic political system.
Russia, it was believed, would move from a “command” economy (where the state owned the means of production and set quotas on everything from bread to steel) to more of a “demand” economy where independently owned companies responded to market/consumer demand for products.
The decline of trade
Exports from Washington state to Russia decreased drastically in recent years — from a peak of $2.1 billion in 2014 to just $310 million in 2021, according to trade data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
And most of that — $204 million — was in transportation related equipment, as in planes and parts from Boeing and the state’s aerospace industry.
Export of Northwest agricultural products, which have been largely banned in Russia, declined from the $20-$28 million range in the early 2010s to around $1 million in 2021.
When it comes to oil, most of the crude oil processed in our state’s five refineries comes from Alaska, North Dakota and Alberta, Canada.
They still received about 10 million barrels of crude oil from Russia in 2021 — with most of it going through the Tesoro/Marathon refinery at Anacortes.
To put it mildly, trade relationships with Russia have been high maintenance and fraught with more than financial complications.
On a national level, it doesn’t get much better — legislation has been proposed in Congress to end normal trade relations with Russia, which could enable an increase in tariffs for Russian imports. Another measure before Congress would call for kicking Russia out of the World Trade Organization, which facilitates trade between countries. However, the U.S. cannot make such a decision unilaterally.
Just a few years ago it seemed like we could be business partners, even something like companions on the world stage with Russia.
After all, what could be a more unifying force than Starbucks and McDonalds?
But when Disney, Mastercard, Ikea, Rolex, Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, Netflix, FedEx and about a hundred others “pause” operations in Russia, you know that it might be time to reevaluate.
Morf Morford is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index.