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Trucks carrying grain wait to cross the Ukraine-Moldova border, on June 11.STRINGER/Reuters

Ukraine has long forged a reputation as the planet’s bread basket.

Before being invaded by Russia in February, it exported 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural produce through its ports each month, including 12 per cent of the world’s wheat, 15 per cent of its corn and 50 per cent of its sunflower oil. It’s capable of feeding 400 million people every year, not including its own population.

Not long ago, Ukraine exported up to six million tonnes of grain per month. Today, that figure is only 1.5 million.

The reason: Russia’s naval blockade of Black Sea ports makes it impossible for Ukraine to sell its agricultural products abroad. Meantime, vast swaths of farmland have either been taken over by Russian occupiers or been littered with mines, rendering the land useless. Ukrainian officials now estimate there are 25 million tonnes of grain stuck in storehouses. By September, it’s estimated that tens of millions of tonnes of grain will be entombed inside Ukraine and will likely rot.

“For people around the world, the war, together with the other crises, is threatening to unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution, leaving social and economic chaos in its wake,” says United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

The UN estimates that the war could move nearly 50 million people in several countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East into famine or famine-like conditions because of its horrific impact on supply and prices.

And this is all a very calculated act by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin has weaponized food and is now blackmailing the world with it. He has said he would end the Black Sea blockade if the West drops its sanctions. Of course, even as he says this he knows it’s a non-starter. Dropping those sanctions would only help fill Russia’s financial coffers and allow it to move even more aggressively into Ukraine.

Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, believes Mr. Putin is banking on food shortages to ignite riots in many countries. It could lead to an exodus of starving refugees in the direction of Europe, creating instability and chaos.

This will put even more pressure on the West to drop the sanctions and broker a ceasefire agreement in the name of world peace. At this point, Mr. Putin would likely take whatever territorial gains he’s made in Ukraine and call it a day.

It’s pure evil, but hardly original.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin manufactured a famine in Ukraine in 1932, in an attempt, some believe, to stamp out a nascent independence movement. Upwards of five million Ukrainians starved to death in an event remembered today as Holodomor, or the Terror Famine. In Ukraine, it is considered a genocide. Adolf Hitler, meantime, had plans to redirect Ukrainian grain for the Soviet Union to Germany in the hopes of starving millions of Soviet citizens.

“[Today] Russia is planning to starve Asians and Africans in order to win its war in Europe,” Mr. Snyder wrote on Twitter recently. “This is a new level of colonialism and the latest chapter of hunger politics.”

Ukrainian farmers have shifted to moving their grain by rail and truck but the process is time consuming and cost prohibitive. NBC News reported recently a line of trucks 10 miles long trying to get into Poland. Fuel prices are also prohibitive and there is a fuel shortage to boot. In other words, there are few good options for Ukraine right now.

The European Union has been plotting possible workarounds to diminish the blockade’s impact. There are plans to establish “solidarity corridors” to help eliminate some of the logistical hurdles Ukrainian farmers currently face in getting their food to market.

The goal is to establish alternative routes to EU seaports, which would help get Ukrainian products farther, faster. However, some aren’t exactly brimming with confidence over the plan. “Whether they get it out is anybody’s guess,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters at a G7 meeting.

The surest way of ending the Russian blockade is to get rid of it. It would take a massive commitment of the proper weaponry to establish a humanitarian route to Ukrainian Black Sea ports so commercial vessels could get in and out.

However, if NATO had to get involved to make this happen, it would risk escalating and broadening the war.

As the strangulation of Ukraine’s food exports begins to affect some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, this story will only get bigger and uglier and scarier. It could soon become the biggest story of the war.

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