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The US Is Urging the Global South to Call Out Russia’s Aggression Loudly

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Robert Wood, United States alternate ambassador for special political affairs at the UN, speaking on International Women's Day, March 8, 2023, in the Security Council. The US holds the monthly presidency in August and will concentrate on two themes: famine and human rights. USUN/TWITTER 
Robert Wood, United States alternate ambassador for special political affairs at the UN, speaking on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2023, in the Security Council. The US holds the monthly presidency in August and will concentrate on two themes: famine and human rights. USUN/TWITTER

The United States is urging the global South to call out Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as many parts of the world continue to confront food insecurity because of the 17-month-old war. Robert Wood, an alternate ambassador for the US at the United Nations, told PassBlue that the recent spate of attacks by Russia targeting grain stockpiles and infrastructure in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, particularly on Odesa, will have a damaging effect in parts of Africa and Asia and beyond.

The US will zero in on potential famine and other food-related crises worldwide as rotating president of the UN Security Council in August. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to chair the Aug. 3 session. The World Food Program, which is run by an American, Cindy McCain, says that 345 million people face “food insecurity” currently.

The presidency got off to a controversial start when Russia’s deputy permanent representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, told reporters on Aug. 1 that his country did not formally approve the Council’s program of work for the month and that meetings “become agreed upon only when the Security Council members approve the agenda before the meeting and the presiding officer strikes the gavel.” He said “the absence of a program will not prevent our US colleagues from carrying out their functions, it will simply make this process less seamless for them and less transparent for others.”

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The US appeared to brush off Russia’s efforts to add a technical wrinkle to proceedings of Council meetings.

More important, Russia’s recent streak of attacks on Ukrainian ports — mostly, the key hub of Odesa — immediately followed Moscow’s termination of the UN-Turkish led Black Sea grain deal on July 17. The deal, signed on July 22, 2022, by Russia, Türkiye and Ukraine, with the UN as a witness, had enabled the commercial export of a total of 32 million metric tons of Ukrainian grains and fertilizers through a safe corridor in the Black Sea to global markets. The deal featured a side agreement between Russia and the UN to help the country export its own grains, fertilizers and ammonia, but when Russia ended the deal, it reiterated its complaints from the start of the arrangement, contending that even with the UN helping to get out Russian foodstuffs and other farm products globally, the efforts had failed.

Russia says that Western sanctions play a major role in keeping its foodstuffs from reaching those markets. (On July 31, an Israeli media site reported that an Israeli cargo ship broke the Russian blockade in the Black Sea to reach a Ukrainian port, escorted by US flights and granted safe passage through Türkiye, but that report has not been verified by PassBlue and has been cast in doubt by at least one Twitter account tracking maritime activities in the Black Sea, followed by another account, which says only the Odesa port is blockaded.)

“These products have never been under any sanction,” said Wood, the US representative for special political affairs, in an interview with PassBlue on July 27. “It’s a farcical argument that the Russians are making, that somehow the United States and other countries in the West have been rebutting Russia from exporting its agricultural products, its fertilizer, that is just not the case.”

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Rosemary DiCarlo, the head of the UN’s Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, told the Security Council on July 21 that the combination of Russia pulling out of the deal and its pounding of Ukrainian ports will have serious consequences for the rest of the world. Britain’s permanent representative, Barbara Woodward, better captured the situation when she told the Council that the attacks destroyed enough grain to feed 270,000 people for a year, or double the World Food Program shipments to both Sudan and Somalia, citing the UN agency.

As Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said on July 17 at the UN: “We all have a headache we have to solve — yet another problem created by Russia.”

The price of grains spiked soon after the full-fledged war started in February 2022 and fell when the Black Sea deal began months later. The cost of grains like soybeans increased 50 percent, for example, just weeks after the war broke out. Although food prices have have been declining steadily since the deal took effect, they have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The heightened aggression from Russia in July on Ukraine ports could hurt the progress so far in lowering the prices of food and result in acute hunger problems in many vulnerable countries, the UN and others say.

“The international community, particularly the global South, needs to speak very loudly in calling on Russia to end these attacks, to end using food as a weapon of war, because that’s what they’re doing,” Wood said. “We do worry very much that we are going to have a situation where some people are going to go hungry, people are going to starve. People may die, and we don’t want to see a famine, again, starting to rear its very ugly head in a very strong way, in other parts of the world, particularly around the Horn of Africa.”

At President Vladimir Putin’s Russia-Africa summit, held in St. Petersburg last week, he countered the effects of the broken grain deal by saying he will offer 25,000 to 50,000 tons of its own grain free to six African countries: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Zimbabwe. But Egypt, a major beneficiary of the grain deal, told Putin at the summit to revive the grain initiative. Exports of Russian wheat are thriving on the global market as it experiences a glut. Putin didn’t detail his new offer, but a possible arrangement involving Türkiye and Qatar has been floated by Russia.

The US focused on global food insecurity during its last two Council presidencies, including in May 2022, when the war in Ukraine was barely three months old. Now the fighting in Ukraine is what it’s calling a counteroffensive mode, but little has changed toward ending the conflict. (Saudi Arabia reportedly is hosting a peace summit on Aug. 5-6, having invited Ukraine and dozens of other countries but not Russia.)

Jeffrey Laurenti, a Harvard-educated international affairs analyst and UN expert, said the food crisis topic was worth repeating by the US in the Council, given the current realities.

“The US government has identified two areas, both of which have certain current political traction, because the focus on famine in much of the developing world in the current moment can be essentially a backdoor way of Ukraine, [a] way at underscoring how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is having all these repercussions, particularly in Africa, where about a third of the membership [of the UN] has refused to be drawn into a condemnation of the invasion, saying that that’s not really our problem or not really our issue,” Laurenti said in an interview with PassBlue on July 28.

One solution to averting a hunger disaster is to push Russia to rejoin the Black Sea agreement, as even the Pope has called on Russia to do. But that prospect is not promising, Wood said. For the last year, Russia has been listing five demands to stay in the deal every time it came up for renewal. In July, Russia repeated the demands, including the big thorn: allowing its national agriculture bank to get back into the Swift payment system by raising the ban imposed by Europe. This demand, like many of the others, was a nonstarter, given that Europe would not contemplate such a move as long as Russia bombards Ukraine.

“Our focus as well as other members of the Council is to try to do what we can to get Russia to return to fulfilling its obligations under this Black Sea grain initiative,” Wood said. “I know the [UN] Secretary-General is quite focused on trying to do that as well because it’s in the best interest of the entire world that Russia go back into this agreement and fulfill all its obligations under the agreement.”

The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is leading the conversation on famine and other issues the country will be highlighting during its presidency. Reena Ghelani, the UN’s famine prevention expert, is also expected to brief at the Aug. 3 meeting with Blinken.

The second signature debate of the US in August is on human rights, based on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in December, but there is no single-designated meeting on the subject planned. Instead, it will be featured in the Aug. 24 meeting on Ukraine and threaded throughout other debates, a US spokesperson said.

Human Rights Watch and other prominent global advocates have been criticizing the Biden administration’s reactions to some countries’ rights records, including that of Saudi Arabia and Israel (see Wood’s response in the Q/A section below on the latter.)

“In December, Biden opposed a resolution introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders to ban US logistical support for airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, many of which have resulted in apparent war crimes,” Sadie Statman, an advocate for Human Rights Watch, wrote in January.

In addition, the Council will deal with the regular issues on its agenda. These include Mali (where the UN peacekeeping mission is withdrawing); counterterrorism (with Vladimir Voronkov, the UN head of the office of counterterrorism, briefing); chemical weapons and the political/humanitarian situation in Syria; Yemen; Palestine/Israel; Libya; Ukraine; and North Korea. (See the schedule for briefers.)

On Aug. 1, Thomas-Greenfield told reporters that the US stood behind the position of the regional organization, Ecowas, on the recent coup in Niger, demanding that the junta negotiate a return to democracy by Sunday, Aug. 6. But the US has not backed the additional threat by Ecowas that it will stage a military intervention if the deadline is not met. The US has a major military base in Niger.

On Haiti, Thomas-Greenfield said that Kenya, which has offered to lead an intervention force to Haiti to help stabilize the country, will answer to the Security Council.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of the US in August and Laurenti’s assessment of the US in the Council, listen to PassBlue’s podcast, UNSCripted, when it hits your in-boxes this week. Produced by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, the new episode is available on SoundCloud and Patreon.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US envoy to the UN, meeting President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in Kyiv, Nov. 8, 2022. The Security Council has held 66 meetings, by at least one count, on Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. Another meeting is scheduled for Aug. 24. UKRAINE PRESIDENCY

Here are excerpts, edited and condensed, from the interview with Wood:

PassBlue: The US will be concentrating on famine and human rights during its presidency. Do you want to tell us more about these topics? We will be focusing on two main themes: a call to end famine/food insecurity and human rights, being that this year in December will be the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are going to be doing a number of activities focusing on human rights, whether it’s DPRK [North Korea], whether it’s the Syria cross-border [aid mechanism].

PassBlue: The US has tried to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine by using different strategies, including sanctions and calling out Russia at the Security Council and in the General Assembly. But these actions haven’t achieved the most-desired result, which is to force Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine. Can the multilateral world expect anything new to reach this reality during the US presidency of the Council in August? We expect that there is going to be some kind of Ukraine meeting during August [the 24th] and maybe more than one. You can rest assured that Ukraine will be dealt with during the US presidency, until we can be successful in persuading Russia to pursue a different course. We’re doing a number of things, not just here in New York but around the world. We’re providing Ukraine with defensive military equipment it needs to defend itself. We are looking at a bunch of bilateral approaches with other countries. Russia is very isolated, we’ve been using sanctions as a number of other countries have. The Chinese have been a great supporter of Russia, they have the so-called friendship without limits. The Chinese are feeling very uncomfortable with what Russia is doing, and not just in terms of prosecuting the war, but in carrying out diplomacy here at the UN. There is an ongoing campaign, not just here and in other capitals but around the world, to try to convince Russia to do the right thing. And that’s to leave Ukraine and leave now.

PassBlue: Russia officially terminated the Black Sea grain deal on July 17 after hinting that it would do so every time the deal came up for renewal in the last year. It claimed the West did not allow the free flow of its fertilizer, ammonia and other agricultural products. This no doubt has impacted food security globally. Did the West, or the US, do enough to allow Russian fertilizer and ammonia to enter the market freely? These products have never been under any sanction. It’s a farcical argument that the Russians are making, that somehow the United States and other countries in the West have been rebutting Russia from exporting its agricultural products, its fertilizer. One has to ask the question, frankly, as to why Russia chose once again to leave the deal, and now it’s carrying out attacks on Ukrainian ports, intimidating civilian ships from moving through the Black Sea. What they’ve done by pulling out of the grain initiative is to drive up the cost of grain; and by bombing Ukrainian ports and granaries, this continually drives up the price of grain. Russia has been exporting its grain, it’s a bumper crop over the last year. So you see a pattern of why Russia may be doing what it’s doing. So the international community, particularly the global South, needs to speak very loudly in calling out Russia to end these attacks, to end using food as a weapon of war. We worry that we are going to have a situation where some people are going to go hungry, people are going to starve. People may die, and we don’t want to see  famine rear its very ugly head in a strong way in parts of the world, particularly the Horn of Africa.

PassBlue: Let’s talk about solutions. Russia says it is planning other alliances outside of the US, Europe and the UN to ensure its agricultural products get to countries that need them. Is there a plan to bring back the Black See deal and ensure that all parties to the deal are happy? You’re absolutely right, the focus needs to be on solutions. I know that Turkey and other countries are trying to convince the Russians to come back to the Black Sea initiative. We’re very skeptical that they will, given the behavior we’ve seen from them recently. If Russia doesn’t come back to the deal, we’re looking at the potential for famine breaking out. So again, the question has to be asked to Russia, why are you doing this?

PassBlue: Something that also affects food security is climate. The US climate envoy, John Kerry, was in China recently to signal to China to reduce its use of coal. While China is increasing its use, the US also has an $8 billion oil project planned in Alaska. What signals do you think these two countries are sending to less-emitting states? Special Envoy Kerry has been engaging with the Chinese over a number of years to try to get them to take more aggressive steps to deal with climate change. And the burning of coal is a big concern, not just in the United States but for all the countries who have been working through the Paris Agreement. We’ve made significant efforts to try to mobilize the private sector and the government sector to reduce our carbon footprint around the world. We can’t do it alone. President Biden is committed to taking the steps we said we would take, and these are not easy. And there is not always total unanimity within our country about how to proceed on dealing with the climate challenge. Climate is impacting the issue of food security. It affects the issue of international peace and security, something that China has not fully come to grasp.

PassBlue: There are many proposals on how to expand the number of permanent members in the Security Council. Biden told the General Assembly last September that it was time for the body to become more inclusive. Will the US propose a resolution that gives veto power to new permanent members? [Ambassador] Thomas-Greenfield and the team here have been engaged in a number of discussions, a so-called listening tour to hear what countries think about the concept of Security Council reform. While there is great support for it, as you can imagine, there are a lot of differences in how you bring it about. The president [Biden] was clear in his remarks last year, that we support the expansion of the Council to include more nonpermanent seats and permanent seats and to see permanent seats for Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. So we’re still very much committed to that. I don’t want to say that we’re going to get behind one proposal or another at this point. We think it’s too early in this process. As I said, we’ve been listening to a number of countries, but there are a lot of differences within the regional groupings about what a Council expansion should look like. Should there be permanent members? Should there  be a veto?

PassBlue: There have been several pieces of evidence of the US withdrawing support from countries considered to be violating human rights in one way or another. Why hasn’t the US withdrawn its funding to Israel, given the country’s serious human rights violations committed by its defense forces against Palestinian citizens during the recent attacks in the West Bank? The US approach to human rights, particularly under this administration, has been very consistent. We want to see human rights protected everywhere. We realized that in different places, you need to look at different methods and maybe more effective ways of influencing the human rights situation in one or two places than in other places. But the commitment is very strong and still there. That’s why it’s going to be one of the two themes that we’re going to be focusing on during our presidency. Whether it’s Israel, whether it’s Myanmar, there are these challenges regarding human rights protection, and the US has always spoken out on them. Sometimes it’s better to deal with some of these issues in private, sometimes it’s better to be public. We do try to look for the most effective way to influence the human rights situation in a positive way, and that’s not always possible to do in every country. But the US has over the years been accused of overlooking human rights or focusing too much on human rights in certain areas.

PassBlue: You graduated cum laude with a degree in journalism from the City University of New York. Do you ever wish you were covering the news instead of making it? That’s an interesting question. No, I think. Journalism has an important role in the world, but diplomacy has such an important role affecting what happens around the globe. For the time that I did [journalism] it was great, but I felt I wanted to go into more depth in dealing with international issues. It’s been the high point of my professional career to be here in New York, serving as an ambassador, working on important and critical issues to our planet. So I feel very fortunate, very lucky.

US Alternate Ambassador to the UN: Robert Wood
Since: February 2021
Languages: English, German, Spanish and French
Education: B.A., journalism, City University of New York
His story, briefly: Ambassador Wood’s diplomatic career spans across three decades in the Department of State and the former US Information Agency. He assumed his current position as the alternate representative of the US  for special political affairs at the UN in 2021 after Biden appointed him. Before that, he was the permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament and the US special representative for Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Issues in Geneva. Prior to Geneva, Wood held positions in various diplomatic settings, including as the deputy chief of mission to the European Union from August 2013 to July 2014, and as the deputy  permanent representative to International Organizations in Vienna, from 2010 to July 2013. Wood also worked  in Washington as the deputy spokesperson and deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the State Department, from 2008 to 2010.

Country Profile

Head of State: President Joseph Biden
Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
Type of Government: Federal, constitutional republic
Year America Joined the UN: 1945
Years in the Security Council: One of the five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US)
Population: 329 million (2020)
Per capita CO2 emission figures for 2019 (in tons): 16 (in comparison, the United Arab Emirates, 20; China, 7; India, 2)

This article was updated on Aug. 1, 2023.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the US focus in August?

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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The US Is Urging the Global South to Call Out Russia’s Aggression Loudly
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Vidvuds Beldavs
Vidvuds Beldavs
10 months ago

Russia saw that steep rises in food prices can create social upheaval as took place with the Arab Spring in 2011. That in turn results in increased flows of migrants to Europe creating instability that can erode solidarity and Russian aggression. It appears that Russia expects to make an extraordinary windfall from its present actions enough to pay for its proposed gift of grain and still leave a massive profit. The more Russia destroys Ukraine’s grain the more profit will put in the pockets of Russian leadership.
Creating and exploiting instability is a well-honed skill of the Russian state. Leaders of countries facing the threat of famine and rising instability are likely to be opportunistic and and not criticize Russia for its actions.
Perhaps it is time to press for Security Council reform and start with expelling Russia from the UN Security Council. Russia’s right to hold the seat of the former USSR was granted to it by agreement of the other newly independent states in December 1991.The agreement of Ukraine, Belarus and other states of the former USSR was preceded by agreements among the Newly Independent States to honor the territorial integrity of each other and to avoid the use of force. Russia has violated the agreements that gave it the right to hold the seat of the former USSR. What if a deadline were set for Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine, or less its permanent member status The UN General Assembly could pass a resolution suspending Russia’s right to hold the seat of the former USSR since Russia has violated the agreements that gave it the legal right. There are no other documents that addresses Russia’s right to a seat in the UN.

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