Putin is threatening poor countries with starvation as the 'next stage' in his ruthless Ukraine war, experts warn
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with farmers July 28, 2016.Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russia's war in Ukraine is fueling a global food crisis, which experts say is a deliberate tactic.
Ukraine is one of the largest wheat producers in Europe, but the war has made exporting extremely difficult.
Experts say Putin is willing to starve poorer countries to create a crisis that will pave the way for Russia's victory in Ukraine.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is exacerbating a global food crisis, and experts say it's part of a deliberate effort by the Kremlin to foment famine and pressure the Western coalition backing the Ukrainian government, an effort the EU has labeled a war crime condemned.
“Russia has a starvation plan. [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is preparing to starve out much of the developing world as the next stage of his war in Europe,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian and authoritarianism expert, tweeted on Saturday, adding Moscow “plans to target Asians and Starving Africans to win his war in Europe".
"This is a new level of colonialism," Snyder added.
Widely referred to as Europe's breadbasket, Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat, sunflower oil and corn. It provides about 10% of world wheat exports, 15% of corn exports, and almost half of world sunflower oil. But the war in Ukraine - particularly Russia's blockade of Black Sea ports - has thwarted the export business. Experts warn this is leading to food shortages and skyrocketing prices in many countries, which could starve tens of millions more.
As a result, Ukraine has around 18 million tons of grain stockpiled, and the country's farmers are expected to harvest another 60 million tons by autumn, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "Ukraine's farmers are feeding themselves and millions more around the world," Rein Paulsen, director of the FAO's Office for Emergencies and Resilience, told Reuters this week. "Ensuring they can continue production, store safely, and access alternative markets is critical to strengthening food security in Ukraine and ensuring other import-dependent countries have an adequate supply of grain at a manageable cost," added Paulsen.
The United Nations warns that the conflict in Ukraine could leave another 47 million people food insecure in 2022. Countries in Africa and the Middle East that rely heavily on Ukrainian grain are particularly at risk. Together, Russia and Ukraine provide over 40% of Africa's wheat supply.
In fact, Russia also accounts for a large portion of the world's wheat and sunflower oil. Russia continues to export wheat and other commodities despite the Ukraine war, but has signaled it is picky about who gets its supplies. “We will only supply our friends with food and agricultural products,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a close Putin ally and deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council, told Telegram on April 1. Similarly, Putin said in early April, "We need to be more careful about food shipments abroad, especially carefully monitoring exports to countries hostile to us."
Snyder said Putin's "hunger plan" was designed to work on three levels, including as a greater effort to "destroy the Ukrainian state" by halting exports. It is also an attempt to fuel instability in the EU by generating "refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, areas normally fed by Ukraine".
“Finally, and most terribly, world famine is a necessary backdrop to a Russian propaganda campaign against Ukraine. Actual mass death is needed as the backdrop for a propaganda contest,” Snyder said. "As food riots begin and hunger spreads, Russian propaganda will blame Ukraine and demand recognition of Russia's territorial conquests in Ukraine and the lifting of all sanctions."
Rita Konaev, a Russian military expert, told Insider that Russia is using similar tactics in the war in Syria. "They have openly tried to destabilize Syria, the neighbors and Europe through the flow of refugees - knowing that they would do anything to end the war in Syria and accept Syria's future with Assad. That's part of their playbook," Konaev said of the Russians.
"The Russian invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated an already dire situation"
An agricultural implement harvests crops in the field as the Russo-Ukrainian war continues in Odessa, Ukraine July 4, 2022.Metin Aktas/Getty Images
Russia's military offensive in Ukraine began when the global economy was still grappling with the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted supply chains and raised fuel prices. In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, up to 811 million people worldwide suffered from hunger.
"Russia's invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated an already dire situation" and "affects the entire global community," Ertharin Cousin, who served as executive director of the UN World Food Program from 2012 to 2017, told Insider.
“There are some countries that have been hit harder than others, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa where they are net importers from Ukraine. So this directly affects their ability to buy food - where their resource source is no longer available. But because of the impact that the lack of these grains in the global food system is having in escalating food prices for the whole world, it affects us all," Cousin said.
In lower-income countries like Somalia, the effects of the Russian war in Ukraine are already being felt on food supplies. The skyrocketing prices for grain and other commodities are bringing Somalia to the brink of famine.
"The crisis is now worse than it has ever been in my life, having worked in Somalia for the past 20 years, and this is due to the amplified impact of the war in Ukraine," said Mohamud Mohamed Hassan, Somalia's country director of the charity Save the Children, recently told the Washington Post. "Communities are at a breaking point."
"Many people would have survived if the Ukraine crisis hadn't been there and food had been coming in," Hassan told the Post, adding, "At least food prices would have been stable and food was available."
"Russia attacked Ukraine... that caused this problem"
A view of the beach as authorities ban swimming in the sea due to sea mines in Odessa, Ukraine July 3, 2022.Metin Aktas/Getty Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has explicitly blamed Russia for the growing food crisis. "Without the Russian war against Ukraine, there would simply be no shortage in the food market," Zelenskyy said in a distant address to the African Union in June. "Without the war in Russia, our farmers and farms could have had record harvests this year."
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has described the Russian blockade of Ukrainian food exports as a "genuine war crime".
"You can't use people's hunger as a weapon of war," Borrell said in Luxembourg last month.
While Kyiv and its Western allies have accused the Kremlin of arming food and stealing Ukrainian grain, Putin has denied that Russia is blocking grain exports from Ukraine.
The Kremlin has blamed the West for the food crisis, citing the harsh sanctions it has imposed on Moscow over the war. The Russian government has offered grain transport ships safe passage in exchange for lifting sanctions. Meanwhile, Russia has also blamed the situation on Ukrainian naval mines in the Black Sea, which Kyiv is reluctant to remove because it would make Ukrainian ports more vulnerable if the Russian attack continues.
Ultimately, "the war is to blame" for the escalating food crisis, Cousin said, adding, "Russia's occupation of the Black Sea has a direct impact on the ability to transport food."
“Russia argues that it cannot move its fertilizer or grain because of the sanctions. If you listen to those involved - and I'm your audience - I can see where there are challenges from all sides. But we can. One should not ignore that the issue is not whether the grain is moving - it is the fact that Russia attacked Ukraine. And that's what caused this problem overall," Cousin said.
At the recent G7 summit, leaders pledged $4.5 billion to help deal with the global food crisis linked to the Russian invasion. As countries scramble to address the situation, Cousin said it's important that governments "avoid the mistake of believing they can protect their own populations from food insecurity by imposing export bans or restrictions -- that exacerbates the challenges for... the global food system continues. especially for net importing countries at a time when they are so dependent on this global food system.
Stressing that it is critical for the global community to take "preventive action" now, Cousin warned that "what is an accessibility issue today could become an availability issue by this time next year."
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