The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Things are clearly not going well for Russia in Ukraine which helps explain why it is using food as a weapon.

In the throes of a global food crisis, Russia is deftly wielding its strategic influence, posing a challenge for the United Nations as it attempts to secure Russia’s cooperation on exporting Ukrainian wheat through the Black Sea.

In response to the crisis, numerous urgent meetings have been called by the United Nations, NATO, and the European Commission. They have sought to propose alternatives, but none could match the efficacy of the grain corridor for exporting millions of tons of wheat from Ukraine’s deep-water ports. With a rail route taking much too long to transport grain from Ukraine to Romania and Poland, institutions and key stakeholders are compelled to renegotiate with the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s attempts to find alternatives have been met with Russian hostility in the form of devastating port attacks on Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Mykolaiv—costing Ukraine not only vast quantities of wheat but also the invaluable agricultural infrastructure that may take years to rebuild.

At the beginning of the war, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres sat down separately with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Their aim was to propose an initiative to address the looming food crisis that was caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. By July, the pivotal Black Sea Grain Initiative was inked between Russia and Ukraine under the watchful eyes of the UN and the Turkish government in Istanbul.

A Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) was established to oversee the execution of the agreement and monitor the peaceful transit of ships through the Black Sea. However, Russia’s recent withdrawal from the deal, just before it was set to expire, has put the global community on alert and forced a reevaluation of foreign policy towards Russia. While Moscow argues the deal’s ineffectiveness, UN statistics present it as a win-win for all involved.

According to the UN, the three Ukrainian Black Sea ports exported 32 million tons of wheat to 45 countries across three continents, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Yet, Moscow alleges that most exports have gone to developed nations while developing countries continue to grapple with food insecurity. Putin, insistent that the primary objective of the grain corridor was to aid nations in need, lamented its lack of fulfillment. This sentiment was echoed by Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, who stated, “Unfortunately, the Russian part of these Black Sea agreements has not been implemented so far, so it’s terminated.”

As Ukraine and Russia are key players in the global food supply chain, the impact of Russia’s withdrawal from the deal is expected to resonate worldwide, potentially instigating a 15% price increase in global food prices. The current situation could jeopardize global crop yields in 2023 and 2024 if fertilizers don’t reach markets in time. Meanwhile, Ukrainian farmers and local markets grapple with the prohibitively expensive alternative of rail transport.

The international community now questions whether Moscow will maintain its strategic use of food, or if Turkey and the UN will manage to negotiate a new settlement. Interestingly, all eyes are on China, an ally of the Kremlin and a significant importer of Ukrainian wheat, to step in as a potential mediator. The Kremlin suggests that Russia would readily return to the deal if its demands to boost its own grain and fertilizer exports are met. These conditions include lifting sanctions on its grain and fertilizers, removing barriers imposed on its banks, and reverting the Black Sea Grain Initiative to its original humanitarian intent. If the UN can satisfy Russia by routing the maximum tons of grains to developing nations, the deal could potentially be saved.

Introducing China as a mediator could also tip the scales in favor of an agreement. If these attempts fail, Putin’s recent proposition to provide free grain to several African nations may make this no-cost initiative a tantalizing prospect, as outlined at the recent Russia Africa summit.

With the global food crisis unfolding, Moscow has a significant message for the international community. The Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) predicted in 2017: “Russia retains serious military and political potential. Even though its economy is not comparable to any of the aforementioned centers of power, it is capable of taking on a game-changing role in Europe, the Arctic, the Asia-Pacific, Central Asia, and the Middle East.”

According to Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, Putin’s actual ambition lies not in revising aspects of the post-Soviet settlement in the Black Sea area, but in offering an alternative to the post-Cold War world order dominated by the United States. As argued by Yegor Vasylyev, the upper hand of Russia and China over the United States, made evident by their indigenous production capabilities, is manifested in their use of food as a tool of influence. The United States argues that Russia is weaponizing food, and Russia is “using the Black Sea as blackmail, holding humanity hostage”

However, it remains to be seen whether constant confrontation or negotiation and dialogue over a complete ceasefire in Ukraine and the grain deal will prevail. Should the UN and other stakeholders fail to negotiate another Black Sea agreement, food-insecure countries in Africa and the Middle East will continue to suffer.

Ramla Khan serves at a non-profit organization based in Berlin, her writings have appeared in various international platforms in Europe, Asia and South America since 2017. She holds a Master of Philosophy in International Relations with her dissertation on Russian foreign policy, Eastern Europe, and Russian disinformation operations. She has interviewed various renowned professionals from Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and the United States.