Crossing the Rubicon is a term that has long been part of the English language. Many people know it means passing the point of no return, but not everyone is aware that it refers back to over 2,000 years ago.

Roman general Julius Caesar had become powerful following his successful campaign in Gaul (roughly modern France). Too powerful for the Roman Senate, which ordered him to stand down his army and return to Rome. In January, 49 BC, Caesar led his army across the border into Rome, defying the Senate and precipitating civil war. The river Rubicon was the border crossing he breached. As he did, he is reputed to have said “Alia iacta est” which translates as “the die is cast”, giving us two cliches from the same action.

Wagnerian epic drama

The decision of Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin to lead his forces across the Russian border feels like a Rubicon moment. Leaving the battleground in Ukraine to step back onto Russian soil is an act of open defiance. The leader of a mercenary army that hitherto has been operating at the behest of Vladimir Putin has now set himself against the Russian army and leadership. We don’t know as yet whether his intent is to change the leadership of the army or the government. Are the generals and the Minister of Defence his target, as he has said to date, or does he plan to seize power from Putin for himself? Or is he acting on behalf of some of the Russian oligarchs, who have either backed Putin or stayed out of his way, but now feel that Putin’s time is up?

I’m writing this on Saturday at 6.30pm, and it’s being reported that Prigozhin has just ordered his men to turn back from Moscow. Is this the end of what is a very dangerous situation? I doubt it. Putin cannot ignore the threat of mutiny, an actual march on the capital.

What has any of this to do with the price of milk, you might be asking? Perhaps nothing, but it also could have a massive impact on Irish farming and farmers. And that impact could happen within days, or not for much longer. We just don’t know.

What has any of this to do with the price of milk, you might be asking?

We do know that commodity prices had just began to move back towards 2021 levels. In particular, fertiliser prices have continued to fall sharply in recent weeks. I heard of CAN being bought for €330/t last week. That’s more than €50 of a reduction in a couple of weeks. Fuel prices haven’t come back as much, but that is in part due to the re-imposition of the carbon tax, which had been lifted when prices were at their highest.

Farmers will say that these price falls have come too late for 2023. Most of the fertiliser to be used has been bought. As far as the cost base for 2023 is concerned, the die has largely been cast. If money is to be made, milk price need to stay close to 40c/l, and beef and lamb can’t soften any more. Grain prices are a bigger concern, in part due to many crops looking extremely ordinary following the dry/wet/dry pattern of weather across February/ March-April/May-June.

While the world waits for answers, the Ukrainian forces will be trying to take advantage. And commodity markets will be extremely nervous.

Uncertainty leads to volatility

And now we have this latest chapter of chaos from Russia. The former personal chef to Putin, sending his private army to march on Moscow like Bane in The Dark Knight Rises is the clearest sign yet that after a decade of destabilising the west, Putin’s aggression is now undermining his own position. Markets hate uncertainty, and the coming days are very dangerous indeed. Who is in charge in the Kremlin, and who controls the army? While the world waits for answers, the Ukrainian forces will be trying to take advantage. And commodity markets will be extremely nervous.


You might be forgiven for wondering how this makes trade more unstable. After all, haven’t the trade sanctions imposed by the west constricted Russia’s exports of grain, of fuel, of fertiliser. The thing is, that has re-orientated where Russia trades, it hasn’t stopped them trading. The trade eastwards may have been halted, but trade west and south, particularly to China and India, has continued. And remember, three billion of the eight billion people on the planet live in those two countries. Many African countries have closed trading and political links with Russia, particularly where Prigozhin’s mercenary army have been active in protecting regimes.

If Russia is torn asunder, or paralyzed, trade between them and Russia could be impacted, and we could be off to the commodity inflation races again.

Twists and turns

It’s over 30 years since the last military coup was attempted in Russia. I was hauling barley in August 1991, listening to BBC 4 as events unfolded over three days (it was about the only station that came through on the tractor’s long wave radio). I later found out that Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the then USSR, was under house arrest in his summer dacha (residence), and was listening to the BBC’s World Service to discover his fate and that of his country’s and indeed the world.

The coup failed, but within months the USSR had broken up, and Gorbachev was supplanted by Boris Yeltsin. As mayor of Moscow, it was Yeltsin who had stood up to the tanks of the army and turned the tide during those crucial hours. The coup was intended to restore a hardline Soviet rule following the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain, and the rapid democratisation of the former eastern Europe satellite states. It had the opposite effect, as the Communist Party was stripped of its overarching powers. The 14 other countries Russia had subsumed into the USSR either seceded or, in the case of countries that had already broken away, had their independence recognised.


Ukraine was still a part of the USSR when the coup was attempted. Indeed, Gorbachev’s dacha was in the Crimea. It was actually in Yalta, where Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt had met in early 1945, with the second world war still raging across Europe and the wider world. Within a fortnight of the failed 1991 coup, Ukraine declared it’s independence.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from history, it’s the law of unintended consequences. Caesar took over Rome following his Rubicon, but was assassinated by senators who wished to restore the primacy of the Senate. They failed in that attempt, with Augustus Caesar ushering in the age of Empire. Like in 1991, the outcome was the opposite to that intended.

What will be the outcome of today’s coup? Or was it a coup at all? We’ll begin to find out in the coming days. It might be worth looking for some of that cheaper nitrogen in the meantime, because the future is even more uncertain than it was a week ago.