SØRVÁGUR, Faeroe Islands—As the tit-for-tat economic confrontation between Russia and the West nears its first anniversary, there are plenty of losers: associates of PresidentVladimir Putin barred from going to the U.S., European farmers banned from selling fruit to Russia, and German electrical-equipment companies that have lost a fifth of their Russian sales.
But one winner can be found in the rough sea between Iceland and Scotland: the tiny Faeroe Islands.
Because these 18 wind-swept rocky islands aren’t part of the European Union, the volleys of sanctions and counter-sanctions have passed them by. Russia’s food-import embargo last year retaliating against countries that sanctioned it thus handed the fishing-dependent Faeroes a virtual monopoly in Russia for their biggest export: fresh salmon.
“We are the lucky ones,” said Atli Gregersen, an owner of salmon farming brand Hidden Fjord, who has only been able to supply four of a dozen Russian importers who came to his factory looking for fish.
Russia’s retaliation against Western sanctions over Ukraine left the Faeroe Islands, a non-EU country, as the only place in the world able to sell Russia large amounts of fresh salmon. Photo: Gareth Phillips for The Wall Street Journal
As Russia and the West descend deeper into a Ukrainian standoff with echoes of the Cold War, countries not involved in the fight are taking advantage of a shifting world order and the Kremlin’s push for new alliances. China has been securing more natural gas from Russia, Turkey might benefit from a new energy pipeline, and Mr. Putin personally promised last week that Moscow would help Egypt develop its nuclear-energy program.
Perhaps the starkest demonstration of just how far-reaching the global economic shifts wrought by the Ukraine crisis have been can be found here in the North Atlantic. The Faeroe Islands are the only major salmon producer in the world that wasn’t hit by Russia’s counter-sanctions last August and is close enough to send fresh fish to Russia by boat and truck.
Since September, Russia, a salmon-loving country of 145 million people, has been importing just about all of its fresh salmon from the Faeroe Islands, which has a population of 50,000. The Faeroes’ salmon sales to Russia totaled 27 million pounds or $79 million from September to December, according to data released Thursday, representing more than 40% of its total salmon exports by value and up from just 7% in that period of 2013. The average price of fresh salmon sent to Russia—around $3.13 a pound at the current exchange rate—was about 25% higher in those four months than the average price of the fresh salmon the Faeroes sold everywhere else, according to government data.
Behind that lucrative spike in exports were months of diplomatic and business maneuvering by the both the Faeroese and the Russians, telling a story of one nation’s scramble to feed its people while it confronts the West—and another’s push for economic gain from the new East-West standoff. The Faeroes’ tale shows that the showdown over Ukraine has turned into a confrontation with global consequences, redrawing trade routes, scrambling alliances, creating new economic winners and losers, and touching off national debates over countries’ allegiances and values.
“People need to have food. Russia needs to have food,” Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen, the Faeroese prime minister, said in an interview, rejecting criticism at home and abroad that his efforts to build ties with Russia amid the crisis have undermined the islands’ traditional bonds with the West.
Hunching forward in his chair and swinging his fist through the air, the 50-year-old former fish salesman added: “Other people can think about something else, but they will never stop us to deliver food. Never.”
The Ukraine crisis brought a new opportunity—and a new test of Faeroese independence and of how it balances trade interests with its Western ties.
A year ago—the night of Feb. 21, 2014—the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Kiev after huge protests calling for closer ties with the European Union culminated in deadly violence. As the new government took a pro-European tack, Russia claimed that Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine were threatened. Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and, Western leaders say, started fomenting a separatist war in eastern Ukraine.
On July 17, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine with 298 people on board. Western governments believed pro-Russian separatists were responsible. The rebels have suggested Ukrainian forces downed the plane. On July 29, amid public outrage over the tragedy, the U.S. and Europe dramatically expanded their sanctions against the Russian economy. Among other things, the U.S. limited transactions with three major Russian state-owned banks while the EU banned trading in certain military-related goods and stopped exports of oil-production technology.
In August, Moscow retaliated, insisting Kiev was at fault for Ukraine’s bloodshed. It banned the imports of a wide range of food products, including fish, from the U.S., Canada, the EU, Norway and Australia. European economies felt the brunt of the pain from the sanctions volley and Russia’s broader economic woes. Germany, for instance, saw its exports to Russia in 2014 fall by around $7 billion—a decline of 18% from 2013. U.S. exports to Russia fell by just $369 million, a 3% drop.
When news of Russia’s retaliation came in, the Faeroe Islands’ Mr. Johannesen said he directed his staff to get an urgent message to Moscow: “We are not part of EU—we are totally outside.”
The locals here still speak Faeroese, a Nordic language derived from the tongue spoken by Vikings who settled the islands 1,200 years ago. The islands have been under Danish rule for almost all of the last six centuries, but negotiated a home-rule agreement with Denmark after World War II that grants the Faeroes trade independence while giving Copenhagen control of other aspects of foreign policy, the currency and the legal system. The islands chose not to join the European Union and to make trade policy on their own.
Selling fish through peace and war has long been the Faeroe Islands’ economic lifeblood. The tiny country supplied Great Britain in World War II and signed a fishing agreement with the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
These days, a grid-like underwater glow visible from the coastline highway in the winter darkness is evidence of a more recent boom: salmon farming. The circular pens are sometimes lighted from below to speed up the fish’s internal clocks. The choice salmon specimens sometimes end up sliced into sushi in Midtown Manhattan. The less attractive salmon often goes to fish processors who salt or smoke it. In all, the Faeroes are perhaps more reliant on fishing than any other country. In 2013, fish sales abroad represented 95% of exports and 40% of total economic output.
After Mr. Johannesen’s urgent message, it quickly became clear to the Faeroese that Moscow had no intention of boycotting them. Critical Russian food imports, including around a billion dollars a year of Norwegian fish, had just come to a halt. Trucks filled with fresh salmon were turning around on their way to the Finnish-Russian border.
The Kremlin needed the Faeroe Islands to feed its people—and to underscore the point frequently heard from government officials and state media that Russia could thrive even with reduced ties to Europe and North America.
“We had no way out,” said Azamat Yusupov, a supplier to high-end Russian restaurants who had previously relied on Scottish salmon and flew to the Faeroes days after the ban was announced.
Hidden Fjord welcomed Mr. Yusupov with a spread of sashimi and took him out to their marquee salmon farm, a set of roughly 500-foot-diameter rings of netting off the island of Vágar, framed by dramatic, rocky crags.
Mr. Yusupov was sold. He calls Faeroese farmed salmon some of the best he’s eaten and says he would consider staying with it once sanctions lift.
There was just one problem: Hidden Fjord still had no approval from Russia’s veterinary inspection agency, even though the company had first applied back in 2011.
To try to smooth things over for Faeroese exporters, Mr. Johannesen decided to go to Moscow himself. He flew there with two aides on Sept. 7, kicking off one of the more unusual trips in Faeroese diplomatic history. Danish officials lived up to their legal obligations by helping organize the visit—even though the talks would help the Faeroes benefit from Russian sanctions targeting Denmark and others in Europe.
The Danish ambassador invited Mr. Johannesen for dinner at his Moscow residence. Mr. Johannesen brought along Dmitry Dangauer, the chief executive of Russian Sea Group, a fish importing giant. The next day, the Faeroese delegation arrived at the headquarters of Russia’s federal fishing agency to meet a phalanx of government officials and seafood-company executives.
After the meeting, the fishing agency announced that Russia had accelerated veterinary approval of Faeroese fish and promised the customs service would work closely with Faeroese officials.
Mr. Johannesen later told a Faeroese newspaper, “It was an extremely constructive meeting. Maybe one of the best meetings I’ve ever had.”
Danish Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard said his government understood the Faeroes’ decision to continue exporting fish to Russia. But, he added, Denmark and the EU expected the Faeroes “to refrain from exploiting the situation by significantly increasing their export of goods to Russia that are subject to embargo.”
On Sept. 11, Hidden Fjord finally dispatched its first-ever shipment to Russia: 19 tons of salmon bound for St. Petersburg. By thenBakkafrost , the largest Faeroese salmon producer, had received Russian veterinary approval for an additional factory. Its share price on the Oslo stock exchange surged, in part because of Russia, an analyst said. A Danish newspaper noted Bakkafrost’s rally had created the first Faeroese billionaire family as measured in Danish kroner: Bakkafrost CEO Regin Jacobsen and his mother Oddvør, the two largest owners of Bakkafrost stock (although in dollar terms their combined shares are worth just under $200 million).
While Russian imports of frozen Chilean salmon have also surged, just about all of the country’s imported fresh salmon this fall came from the Faeroes, according to Russian government data and research firm Customs Inform.
The future is uncertain: Demand could decline with the fall of the ruble, and Russian officials have signaled they may lift the food embargo in exchange for concessions from the West. The Faeroese hope the premium segment of the market they target will be less affected than the average Russian consumer by economic travails, and that even if Russia ends the embargo, the islands will have won new customers for the long term.
Regardless, for some Faeroese, the sanctions’ economic boon and the prime minister’s efforts to strengthen ties with Russia raised uncomfortable questions. Was the country crossing the line from legitimate economic pursuits to “stabbing the West in the back,” as Sjúrður Skaale, a leading opposition politician here, asked?
Mr. Jacobsen, the Bakkafrost CEO, has said the Russian embargo allowed his company to build up a new customer base and to demand higher prices—but even he voiced concern about actively seeking to boost the Faeroes’ business with Russia during the Ukraine conflict.
“It does not come to the Faeroe Islands to speak out too much in this,” said Mr. Jacobsen. “If we speak out, we should speak out as a part of the West.”
Mr. Johannesen, who became prime minister in 2008, makes no apology for his actions. Asked about Mr. Jacobsen’s criticism, he shot back: “If he should speak as part of the West, then he would not export a kilo to Russia.”
Write to Anton Troianovski at email@example.com