Dispatch

Cabbage Soup and Ravioli

Russians have gotten used to some fancy foods in recent years. But they're willing to sacrifice Parmesan for Putin's foreign policy.

MOSCOW — There's an old saying in Russia: "Cabbage soup and porridge is our food." It speaks to a Russian sense of culinary simplicity and steadfastness. But for Russia's middle class in the Putin era, cabbage soup and porridge belong to the days of Stalin and Khrushchev. Urban Russians today augment their dinner with peaches from Spain, cheese from France, and salmon from Norway. Inexpensive chicken legs from the United States became so prevalent after the fall of the Soviet Union that they're popularly known as "Bush legs" in honor of the then-U.S. president.

But Russian shoppers will have to say goodbye to Brie and Camembert, Italian salami, and Spanish jamón as soon as current supplies run out. At President Vladimir Putin's order, the government last week banned meat, dairy, and fruits and vegetables from the European Union and the United States in retaliation for the latest round of Western sanctions on Russia.

About 25 percent of what Russians eat is imported, and foreign products take up a lot of the meat and dairy aisles in particular. Even dingy local supermarkets often stock cheeses and dairy products from France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Finland; cured meats from France, Italy, and Spain; fruit from Poland; and fish from Canada and Norway. Nonetheless, most of Moscow's shoppers seem to shrug at the sanctions. Many support Putin's decision, even while they admit they will suffer for it.

"It will be bad if there's a smaller selection and prices go up," said Yelena, a doctor who declined to give her last name, as she shopped for groceries at a Moscow supermarket specializing in imported foods. "I remember what it was like in the Soviet Union, and I don't want empty shelves again."

But Yelena said she backed the ban as the "right response" to Western sanctions. "America and Europe have responded poorly to the situation over Ukraine," she said, walking past a fridge full of Baltic and Scandinavian dairy.

State-controlled television has been downplaying any effects of the ban. "Consumers will barely be able to notice any price increase.... Even if people have to travel abroad for some dishes, it will lead to greater profits for Russian tourist firms," reporters on Rossiya 24 exclaimed during a newscast on Friday, Aug. 8.

But analysts predict an overall rise in food prices that will further exacerbate inflation, which has already risen beyond the Central Bank's predictions to 7.5 percent.

The import ban doesn't only affect luxury goods. Almost one-third of Russian families don't obtain the minimum amount of calories and nutrients designated by the Health Ministry, according to the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, and they will likely have even more difficulty as cheap products from Ukraine are taken off the shelves.

It was mainly affluent Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg who were most derisive about the import ban. A picture of Putin with the caption "Let the Hunger Games begin" circulated on Twitter.

Tatiana, the owner of an upscale Italian restaurant-cum-art gallery named Rubens in Moscow's well-to-do Khamovniki district, wondered how she would replace the imported products, especially French and Italian cheeses, the restaurant cooks with. "The taste buds of our guests will be limited," she worried.

Yet shoppers were surprisingly calm late last week at Azbuka Vkusa, an upmarket grocery-store chain that stocks largely imported products, from American peaches to Australian honey. Although one well-dressed Muscovite wondered whether she could stomach Russian meat after her usual Australian lamb ribs, many others spoke out in favor of the ban even as they stocked up on imported products.

"Our mother raised us on simple Russian food," said Lana, a lawyer who declined to give her last name, as she picked out some fruit and cheese. "I'm all for allowing only food from Russia, domestic stuff so that we grow more and make everyday things ourselves."

But even Lana was going to draw the line somewhere. "I won't give up my Chanel, but I can buy domestically made products for daily needs," she said.

"I support the ban. It's not good that they were treating us so unfairly," Nina, a pensioner, said of Western sanctions as she examined a carton of Chavroux goat cheese from France. Climbing prices won't affect her, she said, while admitting she had already set aside a block of her favorite Finnish cheese, Oltermanni.

At a much cheaper supermarket near one of the city's main railway stations, attitudes were even more in favor of the import ban, and no one was worried about the disappearance of French cheeses. Olga Vinogradova, a doctor, said she doesn't typically buy anything imported anyway because foreign products are more expensive.

"It's only fair, although small consumers like us will suffer of course, as well as [food producers] on the other side," she said. "The West didn't need to do sanctions.... How long can [Russia] stay on its knees?"

Even the staff at the seafood restaurant Boston, whose signature dish is a New England clam chowder, weren't worried about the import ban. According to Oleg, a waiter who declined to give his last name, about 15 percent of the restaurant's food is imported from now-sanctioned countries like Canada and Norway. But, he said, the restaurant will replace them with suppliers from Asian countries and Russia.

But while Russians may be ready to change their diets to accommodate Putin's foreign policy, not everyone in Moscow is so amenable.

When John, an American public relations officer with an international company, heard about the sanctions he rushed to the grocery store and spent $200 on Parmesan, ricotta, bleu cheese, cream cheese, and "the last piece of cheddar." He'll be freezing the stash for later use. "I'll need ricotta in case I make some ravioli," he said. "And maybe I'll want to make a cheesecake in a few months."

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

A Kurdish Comeback

Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have been outgunned and in retreat from the Islamic State. But not for long, they say.

MAKHMOUR, Iraq — Ali Sulaiman Abdullah rests on a concrete bench outside a small, run-down building in the foothills of Mount Qarachukh in northeastern Iraq. His khaki uniform, the baggy suit that Kurdish warriors traditionally wear, is stained with sweat and dirt. After a long day trying to defend Kurdistan from the Islamic State's onslaught, Abdullah needs a break.

The 700 troops under Abdullah's command have been battling the Islamic State for three days as the jihadists have advanced closer and closer to Erbil, the heart of Iraqi Kurdistan. This battalion is just one small part of the thousands of Kurdish forces currently fighting the Islamic State on nearly a dozen fronts in five provinces.

He is impressed with the Islamic State's skills on the battlefield. "They are good at guerrilla warfare," says Abdullah. "They are here to kill and to die." He would know. He has 53 years of experience himself, much of it in guerrilla warfare against different governments in Baghdad.

Abdullah and his troops are fighting to hold the ground near Qarachukh Mountain. Finally, on Sunday, Aug. 10, a combined force of Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga with assistance from Turkish Kurdish fighters expelled Islamic State militants from Makhmour and the nearby district of Gwer, securing the southwestern flank of Erbil.

The week before, the Islamic State had expanded its territory to include Kurdish-controlled areas in western Nineveh and several areas close to the west and southwest of Erbil. The jihadists even took control of the strategic Mosul dam, Iraq's largest.

Abdullah and other Kurdish commanders say that despite recent defeats, they can stop the Islamic State. The successful campaign to take back Makhmour and Gwer may signal that Kurds are able to push the militants back. The Peshmerga are especially counting on U.S. assistance these days. Their morale got a boost after U.S. F/A-18 aircraft bombed Islamic State positions on Friday, Aug. 8. Repeated U.S. airstrikes since have targeted Islamic State positions and convoys around Erbil and in western Nineveh. In parallel, Kurds have been strengthening their positions, and Kurdish reinforcements are coming in from across the region to help.

Peshmerga commanders say they have been outgunned in recent weeks. The Peshmerga have not been in a true battle since helping fight Saddam Hussein's army during the U.S. invasion in 2003. Even then, most of the fight was carried out from the air by U.S. warplanes and missiles. The Islamic State's crack fighting force, on the other hand, has been honing its skills over the past two years in Syria and Iraq. Around 150 Peshmerga troops have been killed and 500 others wounded in the latest fighting, according to Kurdish government statistics.

Another problem for the Kurds has been a lack of supplies. The Islamic State now has a variety of advanced U.S.-made weapons that they seized from Iraqi Army bases when they captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, in June. These weapons include long-range artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers, and sniper rifles -- as well as tons of ammunition.

"Their Hummer vehicles are armored and have a high defense and attack capability. They have powerful bazooka weapons and are quite precise in their mortar attacks," says Brig. Gen. Halgurd Khidir Zahir, a Peshmerga division commander who led forces on the border with Syria before he was forced into retreat.

Zahir says that the jihadists often wait until the other side is running short on ammunition before launching a more intense offensive. And the Peshmerga say they suffer from major shortages of ammunition, especially artillery shells and rockets.

Some Peshmerga troops, who did not want to be named, said they have purchased their own bullets and even weapons. But most rely mainly on Soviet-era weapons raided from the Iraqi Army during the 2003 invasion. The Kurds have been pleading with Western powers for some time to provide them with advanced weaponry that they can use against jihadists.

"What we are asking our friends to do is to provide support and to cooperate with us in providing the necessary weapons that would enable us to defeat these terrorist groups," Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said in a press conference on Sunday.

Barzani may be getting his wish. On Aug. 11, the Associated Press, citing unnamed senior U.S. officials, reported that the United States would soon begin providing Kurdish troops with arms *. Specifically what the Peshmerga will get from the U.S. hasn't been specified, but it's exactly what the Kurds have been waiting for -- and what they will need in order to beat back the Islamic State.

Despite early expectations that the Peshmerga would be able to hold their ground against the Islamic State's fighters, Kurdish forces have suffered losses and have been forced to engage in some withdrawals in recent weeks.

On the night of Aug. 10, Peshmerga forces pulled out of Jalawla, a town in northern Diyala province, after a suicide attack killed 10 Kurdish fighters. On Aug. 2 and Aug. 3, jihadists pushed Kurdish troops from the towns of Zumar and Sinjar, near the border with Syria. Thousands of people fled the towns, most of them Kurds who follow the ancient Yazidi faith.

The Yazidis have since been trapped on a small mountain, running out of food and water and surrounded by Islamic State fighters. The United Nations' figures put the number of stranded Kurds at anywhere from 35,000 to 200,000. In recent days, Peshmerga and Syrian Kurdish forces, known as the YPG, have rescued thousands of the trapped Yazidis by securing a narrow corridor for escape. U.S. airstrikes have also helped, keeping Islamic State fighters away from the mountain. But thousands remain trapped.

Since Aug. 6, Peshmerga troops have pulled out of a range of areas, from the Christian-dominated towns of Qaraqosh and Telkaif near Mosul, to parts of Makhmour and areas surrounding Mosul dam. Kurdish officials say the retreats were tactical, meant to make room for airstrikes from Iraqi and U.S. warplanes. Recent gains by Kurdish forces in Makhmour and Gwer suggest that Kurds have shifted to a counteroffensive.

"Today the balance of war has tilted in our favor both militarily and politically," Fuad Hussein, Barzani's chief of staff, said during an Aug. 8 press conference, just hours after the U.S. military bombed Islamic State targets near Erbil.

The Peshmerga are relying on U.S. airstrikes to weaken the Islamic State's defensive and offensive capabilities and give them support for a ground attack. As the retaking of Makhmour and Gwer suggest, it seems to be working.

American planes and weapons aren't the only support Kurds are getting. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have asked for help from Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian armed Kurdish groups. Hundreds of these fighters have flocked to the front lines around Erbil and Sinjar close to the border with Syria.

Fighters affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party could be seen around Makhmour protecting a nearby camp for Kurdish refugees from Turkey. YPG fighters have also advanced into areas around Rabia and Sinjar to fight the Islamic State. Video posted online shows female and male YPG fighters rescuing stranded Yazidis in Sinjar.

Local volunteers have also taken up arms to defend their towns and villages. For Kurds, the Islamic State's advance is nothing short of an existential threat to the closest thing Kurds have ever known to their long-standing dream of independence. Erbil's fall to the Islamic State would mean the end of Kurdish self-rule in this area for over two decades, and it could trigger a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe.

Kurds are confident that they won't allow their forces to fall to the Islamic State. They may be outgunned for now, but help is on the way. And Halgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs, says that following U.S. airstrikes, "there is an agreement that the second phase will be for Peshmerga forces to be armed in a coordinated effort with the U.S. and Iraqi militaries."

Most Kurds have little doubt that it is going to be a long fight against the Islamic State, which seems intent on incorporating Kurdish territory into its caliphate. The emerging unity on the front lines among the frequently divided Kurdish forces coming from different parts of the Middle East is testimony that they consider this fight a struggle for survival.

 

*The article originally said that the Associated Press reported that the Pentagon will provide Peshmerga with weapons. In fact, the report says that the government agency that will provide assistance to the Kurds is unknown. Return to reading.

SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images