There are really two wars being fought by Russia today – one a war of conquest against Ukraine, and the other a siege war, intended to stop food exports, whose victims include millions of people around the world.
That second war, conducted by Russian naval forces through their blockade of the Black Sea, has received less attention, but is already causing considerable suffering and has the potential to claim countless lives. As we rightly step up our assistance to Ukraine, there is an equal need to take action, perhaps more bluntly and directly, to end this food war.
At root is Ukraine’s role as one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recently declared it “among the most important producers of agricultural commodities in the world.”
Ukraine normally exports 10 per cent of the world’s wheat, 13 per cent of barley, 15 per cent of corn and 50 per cent of sunflower oil. Together, its food exports make it the fifth-largest grain exporter, accounting for 6 per cent of the world’s agricultural production, measured by calories.
Some countries, including Egypt, the Philippines, Indonesia, Lebanon, Algeria and Tunisia, are overwhelmingly dependent on grain imports from Ukraine. In the case of Egypt (the world’s largest importer of food grains) those imports were also from Russia – but the international embargo against Russian exports has made Ukraine even more important.
That’s the superficial reason why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began with a large-scale naval blockade of Black Sea ports, preventing Ukraine’s 2021 grain harvest from going to market.
By successfully seizing the sea channels leading out of the Sea of Azov and around Odessa and other major ports, sinking a number of merchant vessels and destroying storage and transit facilities, Moscow has deprived Ukraine of its most significant source of foreign-currency earnings; it was also an act of revenge for the world’s boycott of Russian exports.
It has been a costly move for Russia, involving numerous battles over strategic points such as Snake Island and the loss of a number of major warships, including the Black Sea flagship Moskva and the landing ship Saratov. The Russian Navy has been unable to mount a major landing because of Ukrainian resistance, so its naval operation only serves the blockade.
But it appears there was a more ominous motive for the blockade, one that explains its otherwise excessive cost and risk. Western officials have recently become convinced, based on volumes of intelligence data coming out of Russia, that President Vladimir Putin has engineered the blockade as a deliberate attempt to create chaos and division.
“We must not be naive. Russia has now expanded the war against Ukraine to many states as a war of grain,” Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, recently told reporters after a special Group of Seven meeting to deal with the blockade. “It is not collateral damage, it is an instrument in a hybrid war that is intended to weaken cohesion against Russia’s war.”
And it’s working: Its effects are being felt around the world, but especially in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, where soaring food prices and shortages are causing humanitarian and political crises.
Food prices were already rising before the blockade, owing to post-pandemic commodity supply shocks (food-grain prices tend to track petroleum prices) and a number of famines and crop failures. So far, government subsidies in affected countries have prevented mass starvation – but, in an inflation-hit world, these can’t last. According to the Group of Seven ministers, there are now 43 million people who are one food shipment removed from famine and starvation.
The case for an international military operation to reopen Black Sea shipping – a freedom-of-navigation operation – was recently made by Lawrence Freedman, the highly regarded professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London. He noted that this would require NATO co-operation, particularly of Turkey, which controls passage of warships through the Bosporus. (Though it has created friction within NATO by resisting Sweden and Finland’s membership bids, Turkey has been co-operative in preventing Russian ships from entering the sea.) It would potentially involve direct naval conflict with Russia.
As he notes, clearing the blockade is perhaps better conducted as part of ceasefire negotiations, and might include, for example, the opening of Russian grain exports in exchange for return of all Ukrainian territory: “If Russian forces continue to be pushed back, and as the diplomacy to bring the war to a conclusion is stepped up, this will be a critical issue to be addressed, possibly linked to Russian demands for relief from sanctions.”
Even if this diplomatic approach fails, the risk created by a military operation in the Black Sea is surely less than the alternative risk of historic-level starvation in many countries. Either way, it needs to be done soon.
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