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US Tells Russia: Stop Weaponizing Food in Your War on Ukraine


US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at the United Nations
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken presiding over the Security Council gathering on May 19, focusing on “conflict and food security.” He implored member states in the chamber to “press Russia to stop actions that are making the food crisis in Ukraine and around the globe worse than it already was.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Antony Blinken, the United States Secretary of State, accused Russia of weaponizing food in its fight against Ukraine and creating a hunger crisis in many parts of the world as a result. Blinken made the remarks at an open debate on conflict as a driver of food insecurity in the United Nations Security Council on May 19. He unequivocally blamed Russia for the starvation of the 49 million people reported to be facing acute hunger worldwide.

“Let’s not use diplomatic speak to appreciate what are simple facts,” he said. “The decision to wage this war is the Kremlin’s and the Kremlin’s alone. If Russia stopped fighting tomorrow, the war will end. If Ukraine stopped fighting, there will be no more Ukraine.”

Russia would have none of the accusations. “From what you say, Russia wants to starve everyone to death, while all you and Ukrainians care about is saving lives of those who are starving,” Vassily Nebenzia, the country’s envoy, said. “A nice picture, though absolutely deceitful. Let’s recall that threat of a global food crisis did not emerge as recently as this year.”

Capping three days of drawing attention to worldwide “food security” problems, the US brought the matter of hunger, famine and suddenly leaping commodity prices — especially in the “poorest” nations — into UN settings this week. Blinken arrived with a large team from Washington on Wednesday, turning the UN from its sedate self into a hive, recalling pre-pandemic days, except most people were wearing masks. Blinken did not speak to reporters at the UN.

The World Food Program estimates that Russia’s invasion has increased the number of hungry people in the world to 323 million from a previous high of 276 million. Ukraine’s agriculture industry provides nutrition for an estimated 400 million people, according to David Beasley, executive director of the UN agency. Taking this supply out of the international farm market, he said, has worsened a dire humanitarian situation.

For the US, which leads the Security Council presidency in May, “mobilizing action” on food security was also an attempt to reinforce — and to build consensus among wary UN members — how Russia’s three-month war in Ukraine is engendering more hunger if not famine in countries like Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. More than 36 nations buy at least half their grain from Ukraine. Right now, 20 million tons are stuck in Ukrainian silos because of Russia’s military blockades against ports on the Black and Azov seas.

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The meetings on food security coincided with Blinken announcing more arms and equipment for Ukraine from Department of Defense inventories, valued at up to $100 million, raising total US military aid to Ukraine to about $3.9 billion since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

After a gathering earlier in the week at Unicef to highlight how children are wasting away from conflict-related hunger, and continuing with an invitation-only ministerial session led by Blinken on May 18, the Security Council debate the next day coalesced America’s ambition to show how Russia’s war is not only hurting people in every facet of life in Ukraine but also how the grinding conflict is affecting citizens on tight budgets elsewhere. This is particularly acute for countries flattened by drought and other natural disasters, such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine has worsened depressed food-supply markets across the globe. Before Putin’s invasion, several countries were still pulling out of the downward economic spiral caused by policies to restrict the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before Russia’s assault, the US said that approximately 768 million people were chronically hungry worldwide.

Michael Moussa Adamo, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Gabon
Michael Moussa Adamo, minister of foreign affairs of Gabon, at the US-led ministerial meeting at the UN on food security. The three-hour gathering ranged from technical speeches on food-supply disruptions to flat-out vehemence against Russia for creating more hunger across the world. But Russia was not invited to the meeting. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

With Russia reportedly limiting access to its fertilizers, seeds and grains while bombing Ukraine’s ports, food prices have soared before they could fully recover from supply disruptions during the panic periods caused by the pandemic. Western economies have stopped short of imposing sanctions on Russian exports of essential commodities like medical supplies and food produce.

But Putin has halted the export of about 200 commodities from Russia anyway. This has irked António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, who wants the restrictions on fertilizers and food supplies lifted.

“We need quick and decisive action to ensure a steady flow of food and energy in open markets, by lifting export restrictions, allocating surpluses and reserves to those who need them, and addressing food price increases to calm market volatility,” Guterres said in a press release accompanying a new report on the downgrading of global GDP growth for the year.

In the report, the UN’s statisticians say the world’s economy will grow 3.1 percent, a drop from the initial forecast of 4.0 percent. More important, though, is the projected rise in global inflation prices. Between 2010 and 2020, the average cost hike was 2.9 percent, but this year alone, the UN predicts an inflation rate of 6.7 percent. This unprecedented spike is due to an increase in energy and food prices.

Although the heightened costs affect major exporters like the US, the situation is worse in Africa and other developing countries that rely on imports to survive. Guterres said the fighting in Ethiopia and the famine in the Horn of Africa have brought 18 million people closer to starvation.

In Nigeria, for example, the government’s import-substitution program and increased insecurity in the north have kept food inflation high. Food prices rose 18.37 percent in April, an increase from 17.2 percent the previous month. The inflation rate for agricultural produce in the country, which has been hit by rising energy bills, reached up to 22 percent last year. To reduce food pressures in Nigeria and other countries, Blinken said the US was sending an extra $215 million to the $2.3 billion in humanitarian aid that it announced in February.

In the Council, he described how Russia’s violence on Ukraine’s ports has purposely crippled the international food supply.

Anne Beathe Tvinnereim, Minister of International Development of Norway and Russian Ambadassor to UN Vassily Nebenzia
Anne Beathe Tvinnereim, minister of international development of Norway, and Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia, May 19, 2022, in the Security Council chamber. Russia refuted all accusations lobbed against it. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Since Feb. 24, Russian naval operations “have demonstrated the intent to control access to the northwestern Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, to block Ukrainian ports,” Blinken said. “Our assessment is that this is a deliberate effort, evidenced through a series of actions taken by the Russian Government. On the first day of the invasion, Russia issued an official warning to all members that significant areas of the Black Sea were closed to commercial traffic, essentially shutting them down to shipping.”

Since then, the Russian military, Blinken added, “has repeatedly blocked safe passage to and from Ukraine by closing the Kerch Strait, tightening its control over the Sea of Azov, stationing warships off Ukrainian ports.  And Russia has struck Ukrainian ports multiple times. These and other actions have effectively cut off all commercial naval traffic in and around the port of Odessa.”

The results have been “devastating,” he said. “The food supply for millions of Ukrainians — and millions more around the world — has quite literally been held hostage by the Russian military.”

Notably, Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian relief chief, told reporters this week, after visiting Kenya: “The war in Ukraine, as you know well, is having an immediate effect on global food prices and food availability. And I saw that directly in Lomopus, a small village of 600 households, the line between the rising of food prices and the absence of food is direct.”

The UN, with the International Committee of the Red Cross, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey as well as Europe and the US, is working on “delicate” negotiations, as the UN put it, to unblock the flow of grains stuck in Ukraine ports. This effort couldn’t be more complex and treacherous, as the plan would entail safe passage of commercial transport of commodities from Odessa and other Ukrainian ports into the Black Sea. Those waters are mined to the hilt by Russians and Ukrainians, one diplomat familiar with the discussions told PassBlue.

Guterres is nevertheless forging ahead. “Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has effectively ended its food exports,” he said in the Council. “Price increases of up to 30 percent for staple foods threaten people in countries across Africa and the Middle East, including Cameroon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.”

Any meaningful solution to “global food insecurity,” he added, “requires reintegrating Ukraine’s agricultural production and the food and fertilizer production of Russia and Belarus into world markets — despite the war.

“We are working to find a package deal that will enable Ukraine to export food, not only by train but through the Black Sea, and will bring Russian food and fertilizer production to world markets, without restrictions.”

Victor Manuel Villalobos Arambula and Alicia Buenrostro Massieu
Victor Manuel Villalobos Arambula, minister of agriculture and rural development for Mexico, and Alicia Buenrostro Massieu, deputy ambassador to the UN, May 18, 2022. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Russia also took umbrage over accusations about blocking Ukraine ports. “Russia takes all measures to ensure safety of civil navigation in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” Nebenzia said. “We daily forward this information i.a. to the United Nations leadership. As you see, Ukraine takes no such efforts. It is clear that unless this issue is resolved, we cannot speak of any opportunities to export Ukrainian grain by sea.”

Yet the 15 Council members’ remarks were all over the place on the topic of food security. Countries that directly called out Russia for aggravating the global food crisis included Europeans — France, Britain, Albania, Norway and Ireland — but others avoided shaming Russia.

“It is Russia’s unjustified and unjustifiable war that is preventing Ukraine from exporting its agricultural production, disrupting global supply chains and driving up prices, jeopardising the accessibility of agricultural commodities for the most vulnerable,” Nicolas de Rivière, the French envoy to the UN, said. “It is the continuation of the fighting that threatens agricultural activity in Ukraine and future harvests.”

China mentioned Russia only once in its speech. “The current food crisis is caused by reduced supply, logistical disruption, and in particular rising prices, ” Zhang Jun, the UN ambassador, said. “To fill the supply gap, the international community needs to work together to seek diversified food supplies, and maintain the smooth operation of agricultural trade internationally. It is important to bring back to the international market agricultural products and fertilizers from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. We welcome the efforts of the UN Secretary-General to this end.”

Raychelle Omamo, Kenya’s foreign minister, noted that the “war in Ukraine is causing unprecedented global food and energy supply disruptions” and that “we commiserate with the people of Ukraine and we understand their suffering which is real and regrettable. But we also wish to note that this war is leading to many more victims around the world.”

Ghana, another Anglophone country, also hedged from blaming Russia point-blank. “Though the current global food insecurity crisis predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war has clearly exposed the interconnected nature and fragility of global food systems, with serious consequences for global food and nutrition security, particularly for vulnerable countries and populations,” Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, the foreign affairs minister, read in her remarks.

Recently, India announced it is banning wheat exports amid a heat wave that has slowed production and induced rising prices. “As the world was struggling to find its way to emerge from the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic, the conflict in Ukraine has had a profound impact, with spiraling energy and commodity prices and disruptions in global logistical supply chains,” Shri Muraleedharan, the external affairs minister, said in the Council. “The Global South has been adversely impacted both by the conflict itself, as well as by the various measures put in place in response.”

But as the day wore on in the chamber, with dozens of more speeches being read one by one by other UN member states, Blinken’s accusations to Russia in the morning still hung over the room.

“Stop blockading the ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov,” he said. “Allow for the free flow of ships and trains and trucks carrying food out of Ukraine. Stop preventing food and other lifesaving supplies from reaching civilians in besieged Ukrainian towns and cities. Stop threatening to withhold food and fertilizer exports from countries that criticize your war of aggression. All of this is essential to save lives in Ukraine and to save lives around the world.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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US Tells Russia: Stop Weaponizing Food in Your War on Ukraine
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Alexandre Gorelik
Alexandre Gorelik
1 year ago

Dear PassBlue,
Thank you for this article.
I read it most attentively – but, for me, it’s hardly a piece of independant journalism. The reporter most of the time reflects and conveys what the US representatives have been saying of late. This makes the whole story biased.
I read earlier today Vassily Nebenzia’s statement at the Council’s meeting. There are several quite substantive and meaningful points in his comments which the reporter regretfully chose to ignore focusing instead on bitter criticism as professed by the US and EU delegations.
The West’s attitude is bigoted; tellingly, the author recognizes it when she notes that “others avoided shaming Russia”.
Finally, I am writing to you from Moscow – and I do not support what has been going on in Ukraine since 24 February.

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