Update (June 28, 10:50 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated throughout to reflect the G-7 pledges $4.5 billion in aid to address global food crisis.
A frustrated Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is holding Ukrainian agriculture hostage. It is blocking Black Sea routes, bombing silos and infrastructure, and otherwise manipulating the consumption and sale of wheat and other staples in Ukraine. It is clear that, in his desperation, he is ready to employ a new instrument of war that could devastate civilian populations: food.
Russia is trying to cut off a major source of Ukrainian trade and drive up the cost of grain, while stepping in to provide stolen supplies to parts of the world desperate for wheat from whatever source. Fortunately, at the G-7 summit on Tuesday, the United States and Europe began directly challenging Putin in his efforts to weaponize food.
The leaders of the G-7 countries have pledged to spend $4.5 billion to help ease the international food shortage fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is still no lifting of the Russian embargo or a halt to the hijacked shipments of Ukrainian grain that Russia has apparently peddled to starving nations. But Putin will have much less incentive to withhold or steal the vast stocks of grain that remain bottled up in mined Ukrainian ports or in silos that Russian missiles have attacked with impunity.
The other side of Russia’s militarization of food is more malicious and complex – the watering down of precious grain supplies to willing, even impatient, nations whose populations may be on the brink of starvation.
At the same time, countries threatened with famine will get more of the relief they need. Now it will be up to countries in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East in particular to choose sides on what is suddenly a flatter battlefield. These are the parts of the world that most desperately need the abundance of grain found in Ukraine, one of the world’s largest breadbaskets.
For centuries, Ukraine has used Black Sea ports to transfer large quantities of agricultural products to international markets, particularly in Africa. Before the war, Ukraine accounted for 10% of world wheat exports, 14% of its corn and half of its sunflower oil.
But Russia has blocked Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, either by seizing them directly or by mining them. At the same time, it attacked vast stocks of Ukrainian grain that sit in those blocked ports or elsewhere in crowded silos and warehouses, awaiting shipment to parts of the world that desperately need those crops.
Already, in the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv, two major grain terminals – one owned by Missouri-based Bunge Ltd., the other by Canadian Viterra – have been hit by Russia, whose missile strikes have also targeted a bridge that Ukrainian farmers use to reach a key point. Romanian port.
The other side of Russia’s militarization of food is more malicious and complex – the watering down of precious grain supplies to willing, even impatient, nations whose populations may be on the brink of starvation. As many as 10 Russian-flagged bulk carriers were reportedly put into service carrying stolen Ukrainian grain to ports including Syria and Turkey, according to an intelligence report by London-based Lloyd’s List using ship tracking data . This could total up to 400,000 tonnes of grain.
One of them, the Matros Pozynich, is one of three ships singled out by the State Department as being involved in this illegal trade. During a recent voyage, the ship turned off its transponder, making its course impossible to follow. The transporter, believed to be full of stolen Ukrainian grain, was later spotted by Maxar satellite imagery arriving and being unloaded in Syria.
There have been allegations that NATO member Turkey is smuggling Ukrainian agricultural products, although Turkish officials said they found no evidence to support the claim. However, the Matros Pozynich certainly docked in Turkey. The Ukraine-based SeaKrime project said other investigations show Russian ships carrying Ukrainian grain unloaded in Turkey and attempted to deliver to the Egyptian port of Alexandria. Unlike Turkey, Egypt refused entry and the ship ended up in Syria.
“Russia is shamelessly stealing Ukrainian grain and smuggling it out of invaded Crimea,” Kyiv’s ambassador to Ankara, Vasyl Bodnar, said. He wants Interpol to investigate.
Yet a number of other countries would be willing to take Russian-supplied grain from any source to feed their people. Reuters reported last week that Bangladesh was seeking to buy at least 200,000 tons from Russian sources. Earlier in the month, Senegalese President Macky Sall, chairman of the African Union, met Putin during his holiday retreat in Sochi, seeking grain shipments to Africa. Sall spoke of the “strong and brotherly relations” between Russia and Africa.
“We, the weakest, what do we do? Sall asked after the visit. “We are not really in the debate about who is wrong, who is right. We just want access to the grain. Indeed, before the war, nearly half of African countries depended on wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. Last month, the United States alerted 14 countries, mostly in Africa, that Russia would seek customers for the wheat it looted from Ukraine.
Fortunately, the United States is doing more than warning countries against getting food from Russia. Rep. Greg Meeks, D.N.Y., chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill aimed at punishing African countries that buy grain seized from Ukraine or otherwise side with the Russia. It passed the House 419-9 and awaits Senate action.
For years, of course, Russia (as well as China) carefully cultivated Africa – doing business and creating wealth both financially and diplomatically, while the United States avoided much of the continent. . This dynamic accelerated under former President Donald Trump, who relegated these nations to the mere phrase “shithole country”. It continues to be smart.
Europe too has ceded much of the continent to Russian designs. French President Emmanuel Macron announced in February that his country would withdraw forces from much of the Sahel, where it has long maintained order in the face of increased jihadist activity amid coups and other government actions. made their position increasingly untenable. They were replaced by the Kremlin’s personal mercenary force, the Wagner Group. While much of the continent is now threatened with famine, Russia offers cereals.
The West cannot allow Africa to take food from Russia. Although the G-7 chair, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has invited Sall, as chair of the African Union, to be present as a witness during discussions on food security at G-7 meetings , Sall’s leanings toward Putin suggest that diplomacy won’t be enough. That’s why Tuesday’s announcement of billions in food aid was so crucial.
It appears the West is beginning to heed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plea, delivered in a video address to the G-7 at the start of the summit, to help break Russia’s stranglehold on military shipments. cereals from his country. Beyond aid, Britain and the European Union have barred Russia from the Lloyd’s of London insurance market for ships carrying sanctioned Russian crude oil. Extending it to vessels carrying agricultural products should be the next step.
On the other side of the equation, avoiding seductive Russian proposals as your people contemplate mass starvation is an excruciating decision. With more food coming in, these countries need to realize that they really have no choice but to look to the West. Given Russia’s pariah status, among other dynamics, siding with Russia is not a long-term recipe for their countries’ growth and development.
Russia has long been seen as an appropriate counterweight to Western indifference to Africa and other parts of the non-aligned world. But the West must engage with the continent and other nations in need of sustenance to remind them that one of the main causes of the food shortages they are suffering from is Russia’s own actions. Nations in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East must understand that their long-term interests lie not in pandering to Russia’s militant aims, but in opposing them.