Vladimir Putin still holds two major cards over the West, even as the invasion of Ukraine falters and Russia’s economy teeters on the brink of an historically deep recession.
Kremlin nuclear brinkmanship has stymied NATO’s response since to the invasion.
And Moscow now appears to be committed to using a looming global food crisis in an effort to ease crippling sanctions and dissuade further Western backing for Ukraine.
Moscow’s military offensives have repeatedly failed to achieve key objectives while international sanctions choke. But grain is one area where Putin can still inflict pain.
Ukraine and Russia produce about a third of the world’s wheat and barley, as well as half its sunflower oil. This supply, however, has been severely curtailed by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and blockade of Ukrainian ports.
Russia and Belarus, meanwhile, are the second and third largest producers of potash, a key ingredient in fertilizer. In March, Russia introduced restrictions on fertilizer and grain exports.
The situation has sent global food prices—already at record highs before Russia’s invasion—surging.
Continued fighting in Ukraine could cause another 20 percent increase, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization has warned.
Moscow is locked into a war of attrition on the battlefield and in international markets.
“I think they hope that sooner or later the sanctions will work against the West itself, or against other countries,” Oleg Ignatov, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Russia, told Newsweek. “and that other countries—for example countries from Africa and from the Middle East—will put more pressure on the West to stop this war, to force Ukraine to lay down their arms.”
“I understand that sounds a little bit naive, but it seems that it’s their strategy,” Ignatov added. “Putin always underestimated Western resolve, and he always overestimated his own resources. He continues to do that. He doesn’t want to recognize that he failed.”
“Russia didn’t expect such sanctions,” he added. “They think that the West will concede sooner or later, that the West will have to compromise sooner or later. That’s the bet.”
The European Commission published a report this week noting: “Food security in war-torn Ukraine is of great concern, particularly as Russia seems to be deliberately targeting and destroying food stocks and storage locations.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week that the war against Ukraine is exacerbating a global food system already struggling with climate change, COVID-19, and inequality. The coming crisis, he said, “threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity.”
“There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertilizer produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets—despite the war,” Guterres warned.
Crisis Blame Game
American officials have been pointed in attributing blame. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Moscow of weaponizing food supply by blockading the Black Sea and attacking Ukrainian agricultural and port infrastructure.
“The food supply for millions of Ukrainians—and millions more around the world—has quite literally been held hostage by the Russian military,” Blinken said at the U.N. earlier this month.
Russian leaders have dismissed such criticism, instead blaming international sanctions.
In April, Putin said such measures “will inevitably exacerbate food shortages in the poorest regions of the world, spur new waves of migration and in general drive food prices even higher.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Rudenko was more explicit this week, telling Russian news agencies: “Solving the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the removal of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions.”
Blinken rejected Moscow’s claim that international sanctions are to blame for the worsening crisis: “No, the decision to weaponize food is Moscow’s and Moscow’s alone.”
Black Sea Blockade
Wartime logistics are also a problem.
Russia appears set on retaining swathes of territory along Ukraine’s south coast. Even if Ukraine retains control of key ports like Odessa, there is no guarantee Russian warships would allow Ukrainian shipping to operate in the Black Sea.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday: “You cannot trust Russia, even if they sign a paper guaranteeing safe passage. And second, you don’t know at which point they may violate the agreement once it’s been implemented.”
Ukraine still has enough stored grain to meet domestic and international demand until at least the end of 2022, perhaps into 2023, Oleg Ustenko—an economic adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky—told Newsweek.
But the blockade means the country’s excess produce cannot be sold abroad.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine exported more than 6 million tons of grain via the Black Sea each month.
Ukraine is looking to its railways and roads to take up the slack, but these do not have the capacity of seaports. In April, for example, only 617,000 tons of produce were exported by rail.
Lithuanian has proposed an allied escort mission to protect shipping leaving Ukrainian ports. Several NATO nations are also reportedly planning to provide Ukrainian defenders with anti-ship missiles.
‘They Wanted to Weaponize Food’
But Ustenko said the only long-term solution is an end to the fighting.
“My view is that the only way to move this grain to supply international markets is to stop the war, or at least to stop all military actions in the Black Sea,” he explained. Russia, he said, will not hesitate to attack any ships in the Black Sea until then. “They’re going to send their missiles at any ship moving in the region.”
Ustenko said Ukraine could respond quickly to a hypothetical peace.
“If the fighting stopped, we could do that almost immediately because we have access to the main ports from where we were doing that,” he said. “Our ships are ready, international ships might be coming very easily and very quickly.”
“They played this card from the very beginning,” Ustenko said of the Russians. “They knew that one of the reasons for them to close our ports was to produce this problem worldwide. They wanted to weaponize food as well.”
Russia has routinely targeted grain storage facilities since the beginning of the war. Meanwhile, invading forces have stolen large amounts of stored produce and agricultural equipment. Unexploded ordinance and mines left behind by retreating Russian troops also imperil farmers who are able to work their land.
Quick peace in Ukraine or a sudden détente between Moscow and the West are unlikely. Pressure on global food markets will continue.
“They are playing different cards at one time on the same table: energy, food, plus they have their military operation on our land and they’re sending missiles, they’re destroying infrastructure, but also they’re destroying all our food storage,” Ustenko explained.
“They want to put as much pressure as possible on the West.”
Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry to request comment.