Ukraine's Black Sea grain: Is Russia weaponising global food security?
On 22 July, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, declared that he was relieved. It seemed as though a global food crisis in the making, and mass famine, could be averted.
As a response to Russia’s blockading of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, cutting off this breadbasket from the food markets of the world, the UN, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey had struck a deal.
Russia would promise to loosen its blockade and to allow Ukrainian produce to leave the blockaded ports – in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on Russia’s own grain exports.
The deal was intended to allow millions of tons of grain, which were confined to warehouses, to be sold and delivered on the world market.
"In the Middle East and Africa, heavily dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain, the war has prompted panic – and threatened to throw the global food supply into chaos"
The terms of the agreement were strained, both by Ukrainian assumptions of Russian bad faith and by limits baked into the agreement.
It was planned to last 120 days, based on agreements between officials in Istanbul from Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, and the UN. If all went well, the parties would renew the deal.
“Today there is a beacon on the Black Sea,” Guterres said. “A beacon of hope”. Clause C of the deal forbade attacks by either side on port facilities.
Less than twenty-four hours later, however, Russian Kalibr missiles landed in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa.
Ukrainian officials – who stressed Russian untrustworthiness during the months of negotiation, and in every discussion with foreign press and foreign officials – appeared to be vindicated.
The desire to reach a deal was prompted by dire necessity. Before the war, Ukraine was one of the world’s largest exporters of barley, wheat, rye, and corn.
Before the war, it exported roughly 20 million tonnes of wheat per year, largely from its fertile east, where battles now rage.
From exporting up to 6 million tonnes of all types of grain per month before the war, by June, Ukraine’s monthly exports had fallen to one million tonnes each month.
Ukraine and Russia are both major food exporters. As the conflict has ground on, grain prices have oscillated, but trended high.
In the Middle East and Africa, heavily dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain, the war has prompted panic – and threatened to throw the global food supply into chaos.
Developing countries have suffered growing economic and social problems since the beginning of the pandemic two and a half years ago. Middle Eastern and North African countries already depended heavily on Russian and Ukrainian wheat.
As the war continues, they are beginning to suffer price rises and rationing in anticipation of future shortages. Eventually, the shortages will come.
Lebanon imported half of its wheat from Ukraine in 2020 and the country is already suffering a food and fuel crisis as prices rise. Yemen, Syria, and Libya are in a similar position – pre-war, Ukrainian wheat was essential to their food supply.
Now it must be replaced. Egypt has imposed a ban on exports of stable foods, beginning in March, in a bid to halt rationing and guarantee domestic supply.
Countries whose food imports are dependent on low prices and international aid, including Yemen, are left with fewer options.
In countries undergoing currency crises – including Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon – purchasing food imports has become harder as the global price of grains has risen.
"As Russia's invasion of Ukraine has progressed over the past five months, and as its initial objectives have not been met, its political and military leadership have developed new tactics and new goals"
These are an intended consequence of the way Russia has waged its war in Ukraine.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has progressed over the past five months, and as its initial objectives have not been met, its political and military leadership have developed new tactics and new goals.
Lately, these have converged on specific policies. International sanctions on Russia are not iron cast, but they are projected to push the Russian economy into severe recession for the foreseeable future.
Sanctions deny Russia foreign capital, access to high technology, and consumer goods which cannot be manufactured domestically.
Russian policy is, by and large, directed by the need to end or diminish crippling sanctions.
According to Ukraine’s agriculture minister Mykola Solskyi, Moscow has instituted a policy he has termed “outright robbery”; the widespread theft of Ukrainian grain from warehouses in captured territories, intended to bolster Russia’s own exports.
Shipments of this stolen grain have been tracked openly by news organisations, including the BBC.
Russian officials and state media personalities, including the editor-in-chief of Russia Today, have said openly what the strategy entails. Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, has said, nominally as a joke, that all hope for Russia’s eventual success in the war rest on the prospect of global famine.
In an essay for The Atlantic, David Patrikarakos noted that even if Russia was directly responsible for starving the developing world, it still intends to benefit from the starvation: with propaganda alleging that other countries were to blame for food shortages produced by its state media, and campaigns in Kenya and Ghana to the same effect.
The only option Russia offers global institutions is the prospect of diminishing sanctions on Russia, or else the vice will remain in place.
Patrikarakos relates that this is an example of what the US State Department considers Russia’s “perpetual adversarial competition”.
International analysts tell The New Arab that in this instance, Russia is an arsonist turned firefighter.
The deal was intended to lessen pressure on international food supplies, control rising prices in grain futures, and offer Russia some inducement to keep the effects of its war within Ukraine.
Ukrainian observers believe that this deal has given Russia everything it wanted. The prospect of sanctions relief, the opportunity to perform good faith, and some indication of the lengths the world would go to in order to avert a food supply catastrophe in the making.
The ability to repudiate the deal almost instantaneously was, according to these observers, a benefit, not a failure. Russia can, in so doing, remind the world that its approval is required to mitigate global food supply problems – and that it cannot be bought cheaply.
But for some western European leaders, this may prove a point of significant change. It is possible that this will change minds about the prospect of dealing with Russia at all.
"In violating the grain export deal, Russia can remind the world that its approval is required to mitigate global food supply problems – and that it cannot be bought cheaply"
As the progress towards the deal intensified, international diplomats attempted to use rhetoric to force Russia into a settlement.
Justin Addison, a member of the British delegation to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said in June that, “President Putin, through his war of choice and territorial ambition, is choosing to level misery and starvation on millions of vulnerable people around the world. Putin cannot be allowed to hold the world’s food supply to ransom”.
With the deal repudiated, the basic position has not changed. Russia continues to hold the world to ransom and to prove that it is beyond ordinary diplomacy.
It is up to the developed world to determine whether it wishes to continue trying to reach easily-altered diplomatic agreements, or to see Russia – and to act – in a new way.
James Snell is a writer whose work has appeared in numerous international publications including The Telegraph, Prospect, National Review, NOW News, Middle East Eye and History Today.
Follow him on Twitter: @James_P_Snell