Russia's 'Weaponisation' of Food Threatens Livelihood of Millions in Vulnerable Countries

Russia's war against Ukraine has become not only a clear and present danger to international law but also a threat to global food security.

19 July 2022 ·   5 min read

Russia's 'Weaponisation' of Food Threatens Livelihood of Millions in Vulnerable Countries

"The Russians cannot be trusted to make peace,” counsels Maria Mezentseva (32), a Ukrainian member of Parliament from Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city. Elected as a member of the Rada in 2019 from the Servant of the People party of President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mezentseva warns of a pending Russian offensive.

“I have just returned to Kyiv,” she said on Sunday night. “In Kharkiv, there is constant shelling of civilian areas, and we hear that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has ordered his forces to seize the city.”

This new offensive, coupled with a strengthening of Russian forces in the south, would seem to contradict the prospect of Russia softening its stance on the export of grain from Ukraine's blockaded Black Sea ports.

Russia's war against Ukraine has become not only a clear and present danger to international law but also a threat to global food security.

Ukraine is one of the largest global suppliers of sunflower oil, wheat and maize. Its record-breaking grain harvest in 2021 produced 107 million tonnes of commodities, the agriculture and food sector representing about 10% of its GDP. In 2021, global food exports from Ukraine totalled $28-billion.

These exports comprise more than 10% of all wheat, 14% of all maize and 47% of all sunflower oil in the world. On average, 50 million tonnes of agricultural products were exported from Ukraine annually, peaking at 65 million tonnes, supplying more than 400 million consumers worldwide.

Most of these export markets are countries which are vulnerable to food shortages, and also to international humanitarian organisations.

Egypt and Indonesia, for instance, are dependent on Ukraine for around 25% of their wheat supplies, Turkey 18%, Pakistan 46%, Libya 44%, Tunisia 42%, Ethiopia 26% and Lebanon nearly 80%. China gets more than half of its maize from Ukraine, Turkey one-third, while the EU27 receive nearly two-thirds of their sunflower oil supplies from Ukraine, while China gets 59% and India 75%.

The forecast for this year of Ukraine's exports is about $15.1-billion, reflecting the loss of 4% of wheat, 9% of maize and almost 30% of sunflower oil exports worldwide.

The war has amplified food price inflation. The UN's FAO Cereal Price Index was up by 29.7% this May on its 2021 value, while wheat registered a 56.2% increase year on year.

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Global fertiliser prices are at near-record levels, having risen by 30% since the start of 2022, with the Russian invasion triggering import-export restrictions and compounding shortage concerns.

More problems are on their way. Because of the war and Russian occupation, Ukraine has lost about 20% of its planted area this year, while yields are expected to fall by as much as 15% due to fertiliser availability.

All of this is compounded by the blockade of Ukrainian ports, as a result of which its exports this year are expected to be around half of the 61.5 million tonnes reached in 2021.

Before the war, Ukraine exported five to six million tonnes of agricultural commodities monthly, 90% of which went out from ports on the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. Ukraine's exports of grain and oilseed in April were just 1.2 million tonnes, increasing to 1.8 million tonnes in May and 2.2 million tonnes in June. However, at this rate, it would take years to export the current grain stockpile (nearing 30 million tonnes) in addition to a new harvest arrival unless the military situation improves.

Additionally, Russia's invasion has caused transportation costs to soar. The price to deliver this year's barley harvest from Ukraine to the closest Romanian port, Constanta, is now $160 to $180 per tonne, up from $40 to $45. And yet a farmer selling barley to a trader gets less than $100 per tonne.

As a result, many Ukrainian farmers are facing bankruptcy.

Currently, Russia is blocking about 40 commercial vessels loaded with agricultural commodities in the Black Sea, along with 1 million tonnes of grain, maize and oilseeds.

Now, Russia and Ukraine negotiators have, with Turkish facilitation, been working on a deal allowing the transit of Black Sea grain ships. President Vlodoymyr Zelensky has said, with regard to these talks: “We are indeed making significant efforts to restore the supply of food to the world market.”

Should we be hopeful?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has commented that while more technical work was needed to secure a final deal, “the momentum is clear”, though “for peace, we still have a long way to go”.

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Oleksandr Merezhko is the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Rada. He believes that such an agreement “is plausible on condition that it will be made under the aegis of the UN and there will be reliable guarantees. The major stumbling block is, however, that Russia cannot be trusted at all. Russia has created this blockade of our grain exports deliberately to blackmail the whole world and to demand lifting sanctions.”

Ukraine requires guarantees that Russia won't hit the ports or grain ships when they start operating again. Merezhko's Rada colleague Grigory Nemyria notes that: “Russia wanted as a preliminary condition full demining of our Black Sea/Odesa coast with a hidden agenda for Ukraine to become naked to Russian strikes. Russia also,” he notes, “demanded inspections to be done by Russian personnel of all incoming ships, which we rejected. As a compromise, the inspections are to be done by the Turks.”

There is a potential third way if the Russians renege on the deal, which is to establish within a clear time frame a Nato convoy system to protect grain shipments, a method last used in the tanker war between Iraq and Iran. In supporting such a plan, the former Nato Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridis says: “We have reached a pivotal point: Grain shipments are cut off, the Ukrainian economy is devastated, and the coming food crisis must be avoided. Simply allowing Putin to have his way on the high seas cannot continue.”

There are two linked difficulties here, however: Putin's possible reaction and reaching agreement among Nato's 30 members. While Putin might want to appear unpredictable and irrational, it is unlikely he would risk a strike against Nato, which is upholding the freedom of navigation as a universal principle. As Stavridis notes, Russia should be informed “of the plan and ensuring that it understands that the coalition conducting the operation will tolerate no interference — but also has no wish to enter combat with the Russian Black Sea fleet. Moscow will likely bluster, but the idea of it attacking Nato warships in international waters is low. If, against the odds, the Russians did something stupid, it would be met with a proportional use of force.”

Whatever the success of the current talks, developing such options is necessary given Russia's ongoing actions to suffocate the Ukrainian economy through the blockade and the invariable trust deficit.

One of the big lessons learnt recently in the failure of the Afghanistan peace process is that the Taliban's calculus might have changed had the West signalled it was there for the long haul. They were more likely to commit to a political solution if faced with the prospect of a long-term military stalemate instead of using it as a ruse to buy time. Yet, the West was never going to stay as long as was required; and the longer it stayed, the more problematic its presence became. There is a danger that less than a year later, this lesson will be lost.

And herein lies the greatest failing of all — the inability to see the mission beyond the self-referential urges of US or European needs, but rather in terms of the needs of Afghans and their region. As a result, the talks with the Taliban were never about Kabul's needs, or those of the Afghans for that matter, but rather primarily the West's.

“We faced genocide through the weaponisation of food by Russia three times in the 20th century,” reminds Mezentseva. “Now they are trying to protect their gains, twisting the reality and trying to present themselves as victims.”

Third-party mediation in the Russian war on Ukraine should thus stress the centrality of Ukrainian needs and Kyiv's agency, not least since the war is being fought out on its own territory and Ukrainians have everything to lose.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Maverick