How food became Putin’s new strategic weapon

While the invasion has united Western allies in support of Ukraine, Russia has used its increased leverage over food exports to divide the broader international community and to expand influence over developing economies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, splitting the world in ways not seen since the Cold War (Photo: AFP)
While the invasion has united Western allies in support of Ukraine, Russia has used its increased leverage over food exports to divide the broader international community and to expand influence over developing economies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, splitting the world in ways not seen since the Cold War (Photo: AFP)


With Russia able to control Ukraine’s grain exports, Moscow has found a new way to wield influence around the world

Days before Russia invaded its smaller neighbor, Moscow published a series of nautical alerts that effectively cordoned off sections of the Black Sea near the coast of Ukraine, a top exporter of grain and cooking oil.

The subsequent steps Russia took—blocking or seizing the country’s ports with warships, destroying grain infrastructure and even taking farmers’ land and spiriting away Ukrainian wheat for sale abroad—are part of a geopolitical battle being fought in parallel with the Kremlin’s military war, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.

While the invasion has united Western allies in support of Ukraine, Russia has used its increased leverage over food exports to divide the broader international community and to expand influence over developing economies in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, splitting the world in ways not seen since the Cold War. The Kremlin’s goals, Western officials say, are to use the food concerns as leverage for sanctions relief and cease-fire negotiations, to build influence and trade ties with non-Western countries and to destroy a major pillar of Ukraine’s economy.

“It’s a classic situation of using food as a weapon," said Cary Fowler, the U.S. special envoy for global food security. “If they’re saying, ‘We’ll only ship food to you if you’re aligned with our government’s politics,’—what can you say?"

For years Russian President Vladimir Putin has wielded energy as a weapon, using oil and natural gas to regain the influence it lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now with food, Russia is adding another arrow to its strategic quiver.

Russian officials haven’t shied away from boasting about their growing power in this area, even if they deny using it against other countries. Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and prime minister, this year said food is Russia’s quiet and “menacing" weapon that can protect the country from Western sanctions.

Recently, Mr. Putin has said regular grain customers will get their supplies and Ukraine is free to export food products. “No one prevents them from clearing the mines and letting ships with grain depart from those ports," the Russian leader said at a meeting Thursday with his Indonesian counterpart, Joko Widodo. “We guarantee their security."

However, U.S. and Western officials say Russia has effectively blockaded Ukraine’s ports, floated its own mines in the Black Sea and exerted tight control on the grain exports of both countries. “Russia itself has been playing terrible games with its own food, imposing its own export controls on itself, putting quotas on, deciding when and where it’s going to make food available for political reasons," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a food-security summit in Berlin in late June.

U.S. diplomats fear the geopolitical strategy is working, with the heads of African and Middle Eastern blocs emphasizing close ties with Russia in recent weeks, a shift from the days immediately after the initial invasion.

The traditional markets for Black Sea grain are North Africa and the Middle East. Ukraine’s wheat harvest went primarily to Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Morocco, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Agriculture Department.

None of those countries was among the 93 that voted to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council in an April vote seen as symbolic of attitudes toward the Ukrainian war.

“They will likely depend on Russia if they can’t get it from Ukraine," said Caitlin Welsh, a former food-focused official at the U.S. State Department, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “At the end of the day, they want political and social stability in their own countries."

Days after Russia’s major invasion, the chairman of the African Union, Senegal President Macky Sall, called on Moscow to “imperatively respect international law, the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine." In May, however, Mr. Sall warned European officials that blocking the ability of Russian banks to use the SWIFT financial-connection service was making it “difficult, if not impossible" to maintain some food supplies to the continent.

A spokesman for the African Union didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Similarly, the Arab League initially expressed concern when Russia invaded Ukraine. But Egypt’s Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the secretary-general of the Arab League, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov along with other leaders in the region in April, and in May he accused the West of pressuring members to “surround" Russia.

Russia has sought to persuade many countries to abstain or vote against resolutions at the U.N. General Assembly, Western diplomats say.

In March, 141 countries voted in favor of a General Assembly resolution calling out Russia over Ukraine. In April, only 93 countries voted for the human-rights resolution.

In the latter vote, Egypt, Indonesia and other countries moved to join the abstentions, while Algeria and Ethiopia voted against the resolution.

“Right now the countries that could come to the most harm from this are not taking swipes at Russia," said John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine and Russia expert at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. “If the Arab League and the African Union were to slam Russia, you might be able to get Russia to change their policies."

One question is whether U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres can broker a deal to get Ukraine’s grain to market. The U.N. in April backed a plan for Turkey to coordinate the removal of sea mines that Kyiv’s forces had floated near its ports to defend against Russian attack. But the talks shifted gears toward establishing a safe route through the mines, in part due to Ukraine’s concerns that Russia could take advantage of any mine removal.

All sides say they support some sort of deal, but neither Moscow nor Kyiv has committed to a final blueprint. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Mr. Guterres, said: “The discussions on that effort to bring Ukrainian grain and Russian grain and fertilizer out to the global markets are continuing at a rather intense clip."

Western officials doubt Mr. Putin’s intentions, saying Moscow doesn’t intend to allow Ukraine to return to the international grain market.

“I’m personally skeptical on whether Russia is approaching these negotiations in good faith," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview.

Grain traders and diplomats say the West’s efforts probably won’t be enough to feed poorer countries if the world’s food problems—already affected by droughts, the pandemic and other conflicts—grow worse.

The EU, Poland and U.S. are seeking land routes for Ukrainian grain exports, but analysts say that option could only move about 1.5 million to 2 million tons of grain a month, far less than the 6 million to 7 million a month that Ukraine previously exported.

If the U.N.-led talks fail to get this summer’s grain harvest out of Ukraine, calls will increase for ships from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or other navies to open a safe sea lane in the Black Sea, according to former officials and admirals.

So far Washington hasn’t embraced that option, since it would draw similar dangers as the proposed no-fly zone in Ukraine, risking encounters with mines and possible skirmishes with any Russian vessels that violated the protected zone.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is using state media and intensive diplomacy with developing economies to blame the recent spike in food prices on Western sanctions and other factors. Mr. Putin has said Ukraine’s grain would make “little difference for the global market."

Ukraine and Western nations are attempting to fight back. “It is truly horrible that Russia plays hunger games with the world by blocking Ukrainian food exports with one hand and trying to shift the blame on Ukraine with the other," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba told African journalists at an event sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

The U.S. State Department launched a “disarming disinformation" website and led a roadshow to tell other countries that food isn’t targeted by Western sanctions. Still, Mr. Vilsack worried that Russia’s campaign to blame the West for food shortages is working in Africa and other parts of the world.

“The United States is not sanctioning food or fertilizer," he said. “The reality is it’s Russia that started this conflict, it’s Russia that’s destroying grain and stealing grain and making it harder for farmers to plant for the next harvest."

—Ann Simmons contributed to this article.

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