Economic sanctions and vodka bans
While this highly unfortunate situation in Ukraine is unfolding I've been trying to pay very close attention to the reactions seen elsewhere in the world. There's an endless stream of commentary and propaganda about the war itself, so I don't feel at all compelled to add any more to that topic. Comparatively speaking there's far less talk about the economic aspects of the geopolitical situation, some of which are overt and some are just bizarre.
While the media is now suddenly hyper-focused on this conflict there will no doubt be a lot of other things changing in the background. A notable example of this is the major pivot in the Covid narratives, with so much energy being funneled into the Russia-Ukraine conflict there's just not enough energy left for people to think about Covid and as a result they aren't. With the media attention being so singularly focused on the war it would be easy to miss that many places are entirely reversing their previous policies on Covid. The war gives amazing cover for people to change things without facing intense scrutiny. The cover of crisis more broadly speaking has been a major factor in the last few years, with many people doing things under this cover that likely wouldn't be possible were they to be scrutinized.
Much like what happened with Covid the scary part of this is that a mob like mentality is quickly forming over this conflict. This is leading to absolutely absurd stuff like people calling for a ban on literature of classical Russian authors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who were authors from the 19th century. At a time when it would be more important than ever to understand the workings of the Russian mindset we have people calling for blanket bans on classical authors. Yes this is the same Tolstoy who served in the Crimean war in the 1850s which was an experience that led to him being a pacifist. Many people out there have been calling for sanctions and unfortunately many of the people in the general populace simply know nothing about how the actual financial system works and therefore have no idea how sanctions actually work either. As a result many of the knee-jerk responses that are being suggested are more than just ineffective but get into the realm of being actively harmful to themselves. A prime example of this is the calls for evicting Russia from SWIFT, with the vast majority of people making those calls not understanding what SWIFT is or how it works or the second order effects of making such a move. Rapid changes to the plumbing systems of the global financial system are likely to be highly destabilizing and might actually directly play into the hands of an adversary who is looking to destabilize.
A more day to day aspect of the reaction to the conflict was the disappearance of "Russian looking" items from shelves in stores. I remember overhearing a discussion about removing Smirnoff vodka from the shelves of stores and I could tell that people were acting in a reactionary manner. A common justification for these decisions was to say that one was "doing ones part" in the economic war, though really I think the real motivations were usually not this. Many of these people think they are doing some sort of part in the economic sanctions war but unknown to them they are actually achieving nothing at all on the economic front in many cases because many products actually have no connection with Russia other than the name or the brand.
While Smirnoff originally came from a vodka distillery in Moscow in the 1860s, at around the time Tolstoy was writing War and Peace, the ownership of the brand has completely changed multiple times in the intervening 150 years. In 1904 the Tsar nationalized the Russian Vodka industry and later during the 1917 revolution the Smirnov family fled the country. While they were in exile from Russia the name was changed to Smirnoff. For much of the 20th century this brand was being distilled in the United States and was an important part of how Vodka became more popular in the United States. At least culturally this is far less of a clear cut situation than it seems on the surface. But what about the ownership structure of the company? After all sanctions are economic warfare so targeting an adversary means you need to know who that is.
Smirnoff is a brand that once was founded by a family but is now, like many brands in the alcohol industry, owned by a major multinational conglomeration. Many people are entirely unaware of how there are these giant conglomerates in beveridge industry and the enormous scale of these multinational parent corporations because their only point of interaction with them is via individual brands. Much of the alcohol industry is owned by a few absolutely massive conglomerate multinational corporations. Smirnoff is owned by Diageo, a massive conglomerate that owns a bunch of other brands. Diageo was founded in the UK in 1997 from the merger of Guinness Brewery and Grand Metropolitan. If you get a Smirnoff vodka today there's a good chance it was actually made in the UK.
I remember a similar thing when I was in Canada driving in Ontario seeing a big sign for Sapporo beer on the side of an enormous warehouse, I thought that was a bit odd. But it turns out these "Japanese" branded drinks were actually made in Canada on Canadian soil. The sign I saw was at the actual brewery site, a truly humongous building reminiscent of the scale of the multinational company that owned the site. This arrangement is extremely common. According to the official website "Sapporo products sold in the U.S. are brewed in the U.S., Canada and Vietnam.", note how Japan isn't on that list of places.
Not everything is as simple as it seems. Economic sanctions are literally economic war. And much like in other aspects of war you can only be effective if you actually know what to aim at. Effective economic sanctions are something that needs actual thought and this requires more than just a virtue signalling mob making the decisions and causing "friendly fire" incidents.
Dealing with this situation will require some nuance. I'm again reminded of the quote:
"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong." -- H. L. Mencken