Until this week, the prospect of global famine had disappeared from the headlines, but earlier in Russia’s war against Ukraine, a sinister possibility had begun to take shape.
Ukraine is a breadbasket. Its produce feeds the world. And Russia, knowing this, had developed a plan to starve the world instead. Its soldiers would wreck Ukrainian farmland and kill its farmers. Russians would steal and sell all the Ukrainian grain it could. And the Black Sea – a vital artery through which most of Ukraine’s food exports travelled – would be blockaded by the Russian navy. Food shipments would not be let through. The world would starve, Ukraine’s economy would suffer, and – in Vladimir Putin’s mind – he would be the victor.
Most of the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent, and Africa relies to some degree on imported food. Food from Russia and Ukraine used to constitute a plurality of the calories consumed in, for example, Egypt and Lebanon. Without this food, Africans, Indians and Middle Easterners would face first higher prices, then starvation. It was a devilish tactic.
Putin’s regime was quite open on this front. When it became clear that Russia could not win the war with conventional means, unconventional ones began to take shape. The world had armed Ukraine and kept its economy going in defiance of Russian threats, but the third world could still be made to suffer.
Western nations live in perpetual fear of another wave of mass migration – one akin to the Mediterranean refugee crisis which followed the height of the Arab civil wars in the last decade. Poverty and hunger cause migration. They cause civil conflict too. Putin gambled that the democratic world would meet his demands in order to avert this possibility.
Russia’s propagandists and emissaries were clear: they would compensate for military failure with a ‘hunger campaign’. Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the state-run RT network and a personal confidant of the Russian president, said on national TV in June that ‘All our hope is pinned on famine’.
The West had options. Russia’s threats were flagrantly illegal. There was always the possibility of sending the cargo ships of a dozen neutral countries into the Black Sea, loading them up with legal Ukrainian grain, and defying the Russian navy to do anything about it. But in the end, the wider world blinked. The UN, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey made a deal.
Russia made a promise: that it would loosen its grain blockade and to allow Ukrainian produce to leave the blockaded Black Sea ports, accompanied by the lifting of sanctions on Russia’s own grain exports. The UN deal was intended to allow millions of tons of grain, which were then trapped, unused, in warehouses, to be sold on the world market.
On 22 July, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, sighed that he was relieved. ‘Today there is a beacon on the Black Sea,’ Guterres said. ‘A beacon of hope’.
Clause C of the UN-sponsored deal expressly ruled out attacks by either side on port facilities. But then, less than twenty-four hours later, Russian Kalibr missiles landed in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa. It was clear from the beginning that the Russians could never be trusted. The deal was always going to be contested and contentious.
And this week, Russia has suspended the deal. The Kremlin has called continuing grain shipments under international agreement ‘dangerous’. The Russian ‘hunger plan’ has returned. Even though many poorer countries have been given time to prepare – with export controls, stockpiling, and some improvements in domestic food production – famine is never far away.
For too long, he world has been dependent on Russian cooperation and goodwill. Now Russia has withdrawn that cooperation (as was widely, instantaneously predicted the moment the deal was signed), we are in a tight spot. But the world reaction might have surprised Russia, too. Rather than crawling back to the Kremlin – as an observer of the UN reaction to the initial crisis might have predicted – defiance is the order of the day. Turkey and Ukraine are doing what some said they should have from the start: in practice, ignoring Russia, sending grain ships out of the Black Sea anyway, and defying the Russians to attack them.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has a lot invested in the grain deal’s success. His country is ‘determined’, he said today, to continue its work to keep the Ukraine grain deal in practice – regardless of Russia’s leaders withdrawing from the arrangement.
And as if as a test of Russian resolve – two ships, the Admiral de Ribas and Mount Baker – left port today in defiance of Russian threats. It’s a potent repudiation of Russia’s domineering attitude, and if this succeeds, it will collapse the vain pretence of Russia’s Black Sea fleet – which humiliatingly lost its flagship earlier in the year and was attacked in port by Ukrainian drones last week – to control the waters beyond the Turkish Straits.
This defiant tactic should have been tried much earlier. It won’t be easy; things could in fact get bumpy. But courage is contagious and bravery works.
Either Russia will be shown a paper tiger or they will be forced to make another deal (temporary and weak though it may be). And in any case, the poor world will not starve on Vladimir Putin’s account, or serve as so many pawns in his murderous game.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.