Why Russians can ride out the grain embargo

The grain embargo is certainly the center-piece of the package of sanctions that the Carter administration has imposed upon the Soviet Union. It is the component of the Carter policy that has generated most domestic discontent, and it is clearly perceived by the administration as the weapon with great est impact.

Yet the factor that has been most completely overlooked is the Soviet Union's confidence about its grain supplies.

There is important evidence to conclude that the embargo will have, at most, a minimal impact on the Soviet food situation. The same evidence strongly points to a speculation that the Kremlin leaders are aware of the fact. Therefore, if in planning the invasion of Afghanistan they considered the possibility of a US grain embargo, they were able to conclude that it would do them little damage.

So far in this century the periodic fluctuation in Soviet grain yields has been unbroken. Thus, Soviet agriculturists have every reason to believe that for the next five to six years precipitation in Soviet grain areas will be better than normal.

Consider the following:

1. Soviet scientists have been acutely aware of studies by US scientists related to tree-ring widths that have shown that in the US Southwest, tree-ring growth has correlated with the 10-to-12-year solar cycle. Their findings are that the 5-6 years associated with a solar high correlate with above-normal precipitation (and thus wider tree-rings), while the 5-6 years associated with the solar low correlate with below-normal precipitation.

2. Soviet scientists published an article in 1975 reporting that similar correlations have existed between wheat yields and the solar cycle in a Soviet grain-growing area where records go well back into the last century. Thus, those scientists concluded that such "periodicity" should be accounted for in the future "when planning the national economy."

3. Our own research has established that there is global relationship between grain yields and the solar cycle, emphatically including Soviet grain. When we visited the Soviet Union in 1977 we were invited to present our findings to top Soviet meteorologists at a special seminar in the Ministry of Agriculture. Although our work was incomplete at that time, it was enthusiastically received.* Moreover, the Soviet meteorologists said that it paralleled the work of some of their own researchers.

4. Those same Soviet meteorologists visited the US in the fall of 1979, going to the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, and to the center for tree-ring studies in the Southwest. These are the two centers for such work in the US.

Beyond the above are four other important considerations that the Soviet leadership must be acutely aware of:

1. In both good and bad periods annual reversals in yield are the rule. Indeed, 75 percent of the time a good year is followed by a bad one and vice versa. Therefore, the Soviets have reason to be confident that, whereas the 1979 harvest was very poor, the 1980 harvest will be better, possibly very good.

2. Although Soviet grain reserves are treated as a major military secret, we do know that in recent years they have expanded enormously their grain-storage capacity. Furthermore, whatever the actual reserves, there have been built up in recent years.

3. In 1978 the Soviets produced the best grain crop ever. That year they imported over 15 million metric tons of grain. As a result, according to a recent study by the US Department of Agriculture, the Soviets entered 1979 with an additional 19 million metric tons of grain in their stocks.

4. The Soviets are very aware that the grain market is not tightly controlled , and that much of their shortfall in 1979 could be made up in the future by third-country transfers over which the US would have no control.

In sum, if the Kremlin leaders sat about the table in the closing days of 1979 contemplating the possible costs of a projected invasion of Afghanistan, there is every reason to believe that high on the list was the possibility of a US embargo. If this were the case, and if they sought the advice of their own agricultural experts, their response could have been: "At this time denial of US grain would have very little impact on the Soviet food situation."

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