Russia is once again using the threat of global hunger in a cynical attempt to get what it wants.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—both countries being global leaders in grain production—severely disrupted supply chains for foodstuffs, raising prices and increasing the risk of famine in African countries reliant on Ukrainian grain.
As Russia blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, a former Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, bragged about the Kremlin’s weaponisation of food. “Many countries depend on our supplies for their food security,” wrote Medvedev on his Telegram channel on April 1, 2022. “It turns out that our food is our quiet weapon. Quiet but ominous.”
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In May 2022, Executive Director of the United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) David Beasley accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using hunger as a weapon of war, telling the UN Security Council, “Failure to open the ports in the Odesa region is a declaration of war on global food security and will result in famines, destabilisation, and mass migration around the world.”
Throughout last summer, the UN and Turkey oversaw negotiations between Ukraine and Russia which resulted in the Black Sea Grain Initiative. It allowed Ukraine to continue to export grain from its southern ports of Chornomorsk, Odesa and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi via the Bosphorus to relieve global food shortages. The Initiative came into effect on July 22, 2022.
Also concerned about food supply chains, the European Union suspended duties and quotas on many Ukrainian products to ease their shipment to the bloc and beyond. The European Commission announced the creation of these so-called ‘Solidarity Lanes’ in May 2022, but Central European countries have threatened the programme in recent months after a glut of cheap Ukrainian grain drew the ire of their farmers.
Now, after Russia announced on July 17 that it was halting participation in the Black Sea Grain Initiative, global food security is again at stake.
What Russia wants
In the year during which the initiative was in effect, over 1,000 ships full —that is, over 33 million tonnes—of grain and other foodstuffs left Ukraine’s three southern ports. Over half of the cargo was maize, which had to be moved quickly to make space for wheat from the summer harvest in Ukrainian granaries, and 27 per cent was wheat. Some 65 per cent of the wheat exported through the initiative went to developing countries with over 725,000 tonnes of wheat going to Ethiopia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. Almost a quarter of the total grain exported through the deal went to China.
As of this month, the WFP had sourced 80 per cent of its grain stock from Ukraine compared to 50 per cent pre-war.
On July 17, hours after an attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge which connects Russia with illegally-annexed Crimea, Russia announced it would suspend its participation from the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov denied that the decision to halt participation was connected to the bridge attack.
A statement released by Russia’s foreign ministry explaining its withdrawal accused the humanitarian initiative of being “commercialised” by Western “price gouging” and stated, “During the year the Black Sea Initiative was in force, the Kyiv regime did not hesitate to commit provocations and attacks on Russian civilian and military sites under the cover of the humanitarian sea corridor and shipping.”
Russia says Western sanctions have deterred shipping firms, international banks, and insurers from dealing with its producers and asked that Rosselkhozbank, its state-owned agricultural bank, be reconnected to the SWIFT fast payment system. “As soon as the Russian part is fulfilled, the Russian side will immediately return to the implementation of that deal,” said Peskov.
Moscow declares all shipping a military target
Since its withdrawal, Russia has launched nightly aerial attacks on Ukrainian ports, killing and wounding civilians and destroying at least 60,000 tonnes of grain awaiting shipment. According to the WFP, that is enough to feed 270,000 people for a year. A Russian air strike also damaged the Chinese consulate building in Odesa.
On July 19, Russia said it would consider any ship sailing around a Ukrainian port to be a military target and warned that even parts of the Black Sea in international waters “have been declared temporarily dangerous for navigation.”
“All ships en route to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea will be considered as potential carriers of military cargo,” said the Russian defense ministry in a statement. “Accordingly, the flag countries of such vessels will be considered involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.”
“What is likely to happen now is that those food prices will go up again,” says Save the Children humanitarian policy and advocacy lead Nana Ndeda. “With that, countries will no longer be able to supply food to children and their families will no longer be able to access food and we’ll see an increase in malnutrition and food insecurity.”
Global grain prices rose immediately after Russia pulled out of the deal—though not nearly to the levels they reached in early 2022 before the deal was first put in place—but did appear to stabilise on July 20.
There also remains hope that due to the importance of grain supplies to China and many African countries—with whom Russia is seeking to maintain close relations—Russia will be pressured to return to the Initiative.
The limits of solidarity
Among the plethora of grievances in the statement by Russia’s foreign ministry was a taunt: “We believe it’s time for Kyiv’s European allies, who can export Ukrainian food through land corridors, to show their purported solidarity. However, in this case, unchecked cheap and low-grade grain could flood European markets and cause (and is already causing) local farmers’ protests. If Brussels really cares about this, the European Union should buy it up and start sending it to countries in need instead of talking about fighting hunger.”
In April, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania curbed grain imports from Ukraine after protesting farmers in those countries blamed a grain glut for crashing cereal prices.
On July 19, the five EU members asked Brussels to extend these curbs out of fear that the end of the Black Sea Grain Initiative could further increase pressures on their domestic markets.
Polish agriculture minister Robert Telus accused the Kremlin of using “grain as ammunition” and said Poland was willing to help transit Ukrainian grain through its territory but that the harvest had begun in Poland and additional transit infrastructure would take time.
“We have to force the EU to help improve infrastructure,” said Telus.
EU officials say they are supporting Turkish and UN efforts to restore the Black Sea Grain Initiative and hope to expand the Solidarity Lanes programme.
“They are using hunger as a weapon,” said the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. “This is one of the worst things that Putin could have done.”
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