Until February 24, 2022, Ukraine provided food for more than 400 million people worldwide and was one of the top exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Then Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Besides Ukrainian culture and the civilian population,Russia chose to also target Ukrainian food production and logistics. The Russian Army has already damaged or completely destroyed approximately 4 million tons of grain storage capacity. The damage toll to Ukraine’s agriculture reached $4.3 billion, or nearly 15% of its capital stock. Russia destroys silos, blocks ports, conducts targeted shelling of Odesa, and steals grain by land routes to its territory.
All these harmful actions affect the whole world. The Kremlin is using food insecurity as a tool in its attempts to colonise newly occupied Ukrainian territories and across the Global South by reconfiguring the food system and making it more Russia-dependent than ever.
«Many countries depend on our supplies for their food security. It turns out that our food is our quiet weapon. Quiet but ominous.»wrote Dmitriy Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, on his Telegram channel. April 1, 2022.
So how is Russia weaponising food in its war against Ukraine?
Russia is destroying the Ukrainian harvest
Missile strikes and shelling by Russian troops have damaged and destroyed dozens of farms, stocks of food and seeds, silos, warehouses, oil depots, agriculture machinery and equipment.
Russian forces have riddled Ukrainian fields with mines to prevent farmers from cultivating their crops for years. According to the recent preliminary estimates, about 13% of Ukrainian territory (80,000 square kilometres) has been contaminated by Russian mines and ERW (explosive remnants of war).
Russia is not only taking aim at Ukraine’s fields though. Europe’s largest poultry farm, Chornobayivska in Kherson region (a $300 million investment), is entirely out of service due to Russia’s attacks. More than 4 million adult chickens and about 700,000 young birds died needlessly without supporting food production.
Where the Russians did not destroy Ukraine’s harvests and agricultural equipment, they systematically stole it and sneaked it off to Russia
There are credible reports of looting of Ukrainian grain by the Russian military from temporarily occupied territories in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia regions. The Russian invaders have already seized up to 1,000,000 tons of grain crops and sunflower oil, according to market sources. The estimated cost of the stolen Ukrainian grain and oil by Russia is more than $600 million.
A separate investigation by BBC Russian and BBC Ukrainian has shown that in some cases, the Russians are forcing Ukrainian farmers to sell grain at prices well below market rates, and sign documents to prove it was purchased ”legally”. Much of the looted grain has been trucked to ports in Russia-occupied Crimea, then transferred to ships. Sometimes it is mixed with Russian grain in order to hide the grain origin information.
In the past months, more than 80 Russian vessels identified as suspected carriers of stolen Ukrainian grain, among them Matros Koshka, Matros Pozynich and Mikhail Nenashev — travelled between the Straits of Kerch, which divide Crimea and Russia, and on to various ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.
There are also confirmed cases of barbaric robberies of agricultural equipment from Ukrainian farmers (tractors, combine harvesters etc.) in Donetsk, Kherson, Kharkiv and Sumy regions.
Russia has blocked Ukrainian ports and is destroying the logistics system of the world’s food supply
The largest Ukrainian seaports, with 49.49 metric tons per year cargo volume, are being kept under blockade by Russian troops. As of May 2022, more than 22 million tons of food were stuck in Ukrainian ports blocked or occupied by Russia.
Russia has besieged Ukrainian ports, mined part of the water area, and is constantly attempting to break through the defenses of Odesa from the Black Sea. Despite clear evidence of this, Vladimir Putin instead lies and accuses Ukraine of mining its own ports – even while saying that he would open the sea corridor on the condition that some sanctions are lifted.
Russia cannot be trusted at face value regarding the organisation of the sea corridor for food exports. On July 22, Ukraine, Türkiye, Russia and the UN signed the agreements on unblocking Ukrainian ports for grain export. And the very next day, Russian troops attacked the port of Odesa.
The Russians hit the very place where the grain was stored, said Yuriy Ignat, the spokesman of the Air Force Command of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Fortunately, the grain store survived.
Russia is deliberately gambling with famine to bargain for geopolitical advantages and ease sanctions, even though agricultural products in Russia are not targeted by EU and US sanctions
As well as its energy resources, Russia is using food as a weapon in this war by blocking exports from Ukraine and limiting its own exports of raw materials and fertilizers.
Russia’s influence on food security is significant, as it is among the leaders in the export of agricultural products. The scale of Russian exports is comparable to Ukrainian exports — it feeds hundreds of millions worldwide.
The EU and US sanctions do not prohibit businesses from purchasing, importing, or paying for Russian agricultural products, provided that sanctioned persons are not involved. The EU and US have carefully avoided a direct and comprehensive ban on importing Russian agricultural products. Sanctions against Russia’s agricultural sector would negatively affect many developing countries because they depend on Russian agricultural exports. Still, it would have little effect on Russia, since its agricultural sector comprises only 4% of GDP.
Russia’s Famine Game is a tool for a new wave of colonisation
Russia’s actions today continue the legacy of the crimes of the Soviet government, responsible for the mass artificial famine in Ukraine in 1921-1923, the Holodomor in 1932-1933, and the mass artificial famine in 1946-1947. The Great Famine in 1932-1933 in Ukraine took four million lives. It is known in the world as the Holodomor (translated from Ukrainian, it means “death by hunger”, “killing by hunger, killing by starvation”). The Holodomor was an instrument of cruel oppression of Ukrainians and their will to stand against colonisation. Since 2006, the Holodomor has been recognised by Ukraine, and 16 other countries as a genocide against the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet regime.
The practices used by Russia today in Ukraine are the same as those applied by the KGB in the 1930s: intentionally destroying food and agricultural infrastructure, especially small farms, and stealing Ukrainian grain.
In the 21st century, Russia is scaling up the experience of artificial famine in Ukraine to other countries. The intentional shortening of food supplies to the global food market destroys people’s lives far from the battlefield, affecting a global food system previously weakened by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
How can we put the end to Russia’s Famine Game?
Russia is playing a famine game with the most vulnerable regions of the world by weaponising food. Ukraine, in its turn, does its best to secure the country’s export potential to the most significant extent feasible, ensuring that those depending on our food exports will not suffer from hunger. But this global threat requires an integrated approach.
Ukraine calls on the international community to condemn Russia’s actions, to demand withdrawal of its troops from Ukraine, and to strengthen economic sanctions in order to stop armed aggression against Ukraine, preventing further humanitarian catastrophe and worsening of global hunger.