The Weaponisation of Food in the War of Atrocities

Developing countries can face hunger because of Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine in the near future, despite alarming reports the determination to action is still shallow

12 July 2022

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Failures on the battlefields forced the Kremlin to seek more hideous means for mass atrocities, unsurprisingly their choice fell on the theft of grain and destruction of Ukrainian harvests.

The deliberate policy aimed at starving people of food is neither new nor unacceptable for Moscow. In 1932-33, British journalist Gareth Jones revealed to the Western public the truth about the Holodomor in Ukraine. Despite the artificial famine, Stalin managed to continue trade and relations with European countries.

The threat of militarisation on the European continent obscured the death of millions of people in Ukraine from hunger. The results of WWII allowed the Communists to avoid responsibility and to hide the horrors of genocide in Ukraine for decades to come. The blueprint for famine, though, has been preserved in the State Archive of the Russian Federation and in the minds of Russian political elites.

Thus, it comes as no surprise for Ukraine that the Russians are once again using food as a tool for their insidious geopolitical games. The military administration in the temporarily occupied territories is pillaging the food produced by Ukrainian farmers, the Russian Black Sea Fleet is blocking Ukrainian ports, and the Russian Army continues to surgically demolish grain elevators in the areas close to combat zones.

Starvation as a Backup Plan for the Kremlin

Levin Professor of History at Yale, Timothy Snyder, explains that the Russian hunger plan is not accidental — the Kremlin, according to him, has a three-layer approach for using food as a weapon. The first layer is to cut off Ukraine from exports by means of a sea blockade. The second is to generate new migrant crises in the EU due to the lack of foodstuffs in North Africa and the Middle East. The final layer serves the purposes of Russian propaganda and historical narratives.

One should not wonder whether the consequences of the war will reach far beyond Ukrainian borders. They are already reaching both Eastern Africa as well as Western Asia. The stability of the European continent heavily depends on the way the EU and NATO respond to the emerging regional food collapse which is leading to a global emergency.

Russia has been articulating its key message in a distinct manner, which can be distilled as follows — ‘lift sanctions and we end the blockade of Ukrainian ports.’ And yet, Moscow gives zero guarantees that it will not use civil vessels as cover for its offensive on Odesa. 

The position of Russia is cynical and cunning, with the Kremlin openly declaring that its arsenal boasts weapons much more powerful than missiles this being wheat, maize, barley, and other foodstuffs. Russia’s repeated statements relating to food insecurity and proposals to open sea corridors for the transportation of grain must not been seen as anything more than camouflage for its endgame goals of integrating the occupied territories into the Russian state by pausing the intense warfare.

The Looming Threat to Food Stability

Upcoming global food volatility results from the unprovoked war of Russia against Ukraine. It is the only reason and the single cause. It is even more symbolic that Russian narratives are leaking through western media, as recently in appeared the New York Times. The latter is advancing the narrative that sanctions are harmful for global food supply channels and that the necessity to lift them in part, concerning Russian maritime trade, is an unavoidable scenario. These messages are fundamentally wrong and dangerous. As Deputy Secretary General NATO Mircea Geoana aptly remarked, ‘the idea that the looming famine stems from sanctions imposed on Russia… is a blatant lie.’

Ukraine is a renowned global distributor of grain and holds a central place in the world food market. Russia could not have been unaware that the destruction of the Ukrainian harvest would inevitably provoke global risks in terms of food security. Recently, the FAO assessed that the blockade of Ukrainian foodstuffs may result in an increase in prices between 8 and 22 per cent above the baseline. 

Ukraine is a critical food supplier (in the top-10 of exporters) of wheat, barley, maize, rape seed, sunflower seed oil and rapeseed oil. The importance of grain for all subsequent food supply chains goes without saying. Countries such as Djibouti, Mauritania, Oman, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Eritrea are heavily dependent on wheat imported from Ukraine. So far, Russia’s war has put their basic humanitarian needs at great risk.

The executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme warned, ’failure to open those ports in the Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security[…] it will result in famine and destabilisation and mass migration around the world.’ Ukraine’s agricultural exports constitute 50-65 million tonnes per year on average. There is no option to substitute or find alternatives to Ukrainian foodstuff in the short or, even, medium-term. According to the WFP, around 400 million people rely on Ukrainian grain supplies.

Source: Information Note ‘The importance of Ukraine and the Russian Federation for global agricultural markets and the risks associated with the current conflict’ (25 March 2022), Executive Summary, fao.org

Targeted Campaign Against Ukrainian Agricultural Facilities

Despite the forthcoming famine, RFA missiles are specifically shelling Ukrainian farms, stockpiles of grain, grain elevators, and agricultural equipment. More ironically, state-controlled Russian news outlets are proudly producing reports that stolen cherry from Melitopol will be sold in Crimea, or that Kherson grain is now being transported to Krasnoyarsk Krai in Russia in order to replenish food reserves.

The latest incident was announced by the head of the Russian occupying administration in Berdyansk: ‘After numerous months of delay, the first merchant ship has left the Berdyansk commercial port, 7,000 tons of grain are heading toward friendly countries.’

According to Ukrainian reports, the occupiers have stolen approximately 500 thousand tons of grain crops already. Between April and June, Russia loaded 28 ships with Ukrainian grain. Photos and observations of shipments of Ukrainian agricultural products have been made in ports in Crimea, mainly Sevastopol, and Kavkaz. Gray vessels are carrying the plundered food to ports in Turkey and Syria, Libya, and Lebanon. Russia is gaining profit by making food a weapon and holds no accountability for this.

While figures and data show the magnitude of the food threat, hard power instruments are still a long way from being considered. If Ukrainian wheat is crucial for countries in Asia or Africa if humanitarian concerns are at stake, can we thus expect goodwill from Moscow? That a country which disrespects basic human rights standards internally will occasionally observe the humanitarian needs of third countries? 

The latter is a rhetorical question. Ukraine has declared its readiness and will to export its much-needed agricultural products. 

Soft Power Solutions Shall Be Backed by Hard Power 

Russia must be unallowed to use food as a weapon. So far, the proposed solutions appeared to be rather nominal. The anticipated meeting on the food issues between Egypt President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Polish President Andrzej Duda at the end of May had ended without any result. Romanian transit efforts, including passage of grain in the Danube region, can not substitute Ukrainian seaports capabilities — through which about 90 per cent of Ukrainian grain was exported before 24 February. Needless to mention the numerous statements which call upon Russia to immediately lift the blockade of Ukrainian seaports.

The solution shall therefore come from Kyiv and NATO countries in the Black Sea region, with Turkey playing a leading role therein. One of the possible ways forward was proposed by the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, who called on allies to establish a ‘blue corridor’ — a safe maritime route for trade vessels.

Wasting time and looking back to Moscow cannot be the best solution. The EU and NATO need to take more assertive actions. It seems emblematic that even in the fifth month of the full-scale war, the EU and NATO have not set any vision or backup plan on how to secure the Black Sea for the transportation of Ukrainian grain if the situation on the world food market becomes critical.

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

Cover Photo: Vitaly V. Kuzmin9A34 Strela-10 – 4th Separate Tank Brigade (6)CC BY-SA 4.0

Bohdan Bernatskyi

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Bohdan Bernatskyi is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Law at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Ostroh Academy. He is a legal practitioner and helps the Ukrainian government and Members of Parliament in the fields of sanctions and transitional justice reforms. His academic interests include human rights, functioning of political parties and countermeasures in international relations.

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