Russia accused of playing ‘Hunger Games’ with global grain supplies

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By John J. Metzler, July 28, 2023

The Russians are acting more and more like Soviets. Their brutal war in Ukraine underscores the point that Moscow’s military ambitions have counter-humanitarian consequences.

And now the Kremlin’s shutdown of the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain initiative signals that Vladimir Putin is willing to block food and grain exports from Ukraine in a ploy to tighten the political noose on Kyiv.

In fact, the rope is really being squeezed on global wheat markets and prices as the flow of shipping is being threatened. At the United Nations, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba accused Moscow of playing “hunger games” with the world’s food supplies through worsening food insecurity.

In July 2022, just six months after Russia attacked Ukraine, the United Nations along with Turkey, brokered a landmark humanitarian deal with Ukraine and Russia whereby Ukraine’s massive wheat and grain supplies could still be safely shipped via the Black Sea, through Turkey as to keep global food supplies flowing.

In just one year the Black Sea Initiative insured the safe passage of more than 1,000 cargo ships carrying 32 million metric tons of food commodities from Ukrainian ports. / Getty Images

The logic was starkly simple; Ukraine despite the war with Russia, remains a major food producer for many countries in Africa and the Middle East. Russia too has significant food and fertilizer exports which would be bottled-up by any sort of naval blockades.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres who invested significant personal and diplomatic capital to implement and support the Black Sea Initiative, decried the Russian decision to terminate the deal. He stated that food supplies “have been a lifeline for global food security and a beacon of hope in a troubled world….hundreds of millions of people face hunger and consumers are confronting a global cost of living crisis. They will pay the price.”

Significantly, in just one year the Black Sea Initiative insured the safe passage of more than 1,000 cargo ships carrying 32 million metric tons of food commodities from Ukrainian ports; Antonio Guterres said moreover that the World Food Program has shipped 725,000 tons to humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Yemen.

Though the UN Security Council met to largely denounce Moscow’s moves, no specific actions were taken given the impending blocking action by Russian and Chinese vetoes.

So, it’s back to the usual square one with accusations and counter charges swirling while markets face supply shortfalls; People starve, and food prices surge.

Naturally there’s the question of what’s next? Shall Russia blockade or sink Ukrainian vessels? Or will the Ukrainian ships sail with military convoys in tense standoffs with the Russians? Can or will NATO provide security through the Black Sea en route to Turkey?

Already Moscow unleashed air attacks on the key Ukrainian port of Odessa causing infrastructural damage and destroying 60,000 tons of stored grain. Equally Moscow targeted the historic Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Odessa in one of it’s expanding cultural crimes in Ukraine.

At the same time Russian grain exports are reaching new highs; just over the last year Moscow’s wheat exports reached 45 million tons while fertilizer sales are rebounding to pre-war levels. So, in a warped sense Putin’s plan is designed as much as to hurt Ukraine’s economy, cripple its still viable farming sector, and equally to eliminate agricultural competition.

“The simple truth is that Russia has made a cynical calculation; By blocking grain exports from Ukraine, it will make higher profits from its own exports,” stated European Union Amb. Olof Skoog. He added, “We call on Russia to stop using food as a weapon and rejoin the Black Sea Grain Initiative.”

So, what is to be done? Moscow’s diplomatic dialectic seems focused on thwarting Ukraine’s robust agricultural exports as a way to financially contain the Kyiv government. This remains a conflict after all viewed through the Kremlin’s political/military prism much more than the
UN’s humanitarian agenda.

At the same time, Vladimir Putin has floated the initiative that Russia will actually provide free food and grain shipments to needy countries. Putin claims his country “is capable of replacing the Ukrainian grain both on a commercial and free-of-charge basis, especially as we expect another record harvest this year.”

Turkey remains a key player both as a party to the original UN Black Sea deal as well as reflecting on her own geography controlling the strategic Bosporus. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t want to lose the advantage of political leverage, being an economic facilitator and his prestige as a diplomatic partner.

Ukraine’s war has entered a very dangerous phase given the perception of Putin being cornered by NATO.

Moscow is acting like the Soviets. Enough said.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]