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Russia Ducks Blame for Blowing Up Global Food Chains

Russia Ducks Blame for Blowing Up Global Food Chains
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Video producer Nik Yarst

Dmitry Polyansky

Dmitry Polyansky

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador

“The main factor for instability and the source of the problem today is not the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, but sanctions measures imposed on our country seeking to cut off any supplies from Russia and the supply chain.”


On April 14, the United Nations Security Council held a meeting on the political and humanitarian situation in war-torn Yemen.

During the meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield cited Russia’s “war of choice in Ukraine” as the main reason why wheat prices in Yemen are rising, worsening the dire humanitarian situation in the country. She said Yemen is one of the countries most vulnerable to rising wheat prices.

But Dmitry Polyansky, Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, responded by trying to shift blame onto Western countries and the sanctions they have imposed on Russia. He said those countries must recognize their responsibility for causing the crisis in the financial and food markets.

“The main factor for instability and the source of the problem today is not the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, but sanctions measures imposed on our country seeking to cut off any supplies from Russia and the supply chain,” Polyansky said.

That is misleading.

A worker carries a sack of wheat flour at a World Food Program food aid distribution center in Sanaa, Yemen, February 11, 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)
A worker carries a sack of wheat flour at a World Food Program food aid distribution center in Sanaa, Yemen, February 11, 2020. (Khaled Abdullah/Reuters)

In fact, Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports is preventing food shipments from reaching the world. Some ready-to-ship crops stored on docked ships could spoil, worsening the impact Russia’s war is having on Ukrainian farmers' ability to raise wheat and other crops.

The U.N. meeting on Yemen came a day after a U.N. Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy, and Finance, created following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, issued its first report.

It said 1.7 billion people worldwide are severely exposed to at least one of three threats caused by the war on Ukraine – soaring food prices, increasing fuel prices and deteriorating financial conditions. Among the worst-hit countries are those dependent on imported food and fuel.

“There is a group of ‘perfect-storm’ countries who are severely or significantly exposed to all three channels of transmission at once. 69 economies with 1.2 billion of the world’s people live in these countries,” the report said.

Millions of people in developing countries depend on Ukraine’s wheat harvest. They include countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen.

Yemen was already on the brink of starvation before the war on Ukraine. An estimated 17.4 million people in Yemen are food insecure and 1.6 million are expected to fall into “emergency levels of hunger,” according to the U.N.

On April 15, Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi said up to 1.25 million tons of grain and oilseed being carried on 57 vessels could rot because of the Russian blockade.

Those vessels are among the scores of ships that have been stuck near Ukraine’s seaports for two months since Russia invaded.

“We now have 100 vessels stuck in Ukrainian ports or anchored around Ukrainian ports, reports of mines in the area, in many cases, crews are unable to get off these ships, and food supply conditions aboard these ships are getting worse,” Esben Poulsson, of the International Chamber of Shipping, said in an interview with CNBC.

As a result of the blockade, Ukraine’s railways decreased grain shipments to ports in March and halted grain shipments to neighboring countries, according to APK-inform, an agricultural business consultancy agency.

Most of Ukraine’s agricultural exports depart from Odesa and other ports on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

Naval mines have been spotted in the Black Sea. Some of the mines drifted as far as Turkey’s territorial waters. Ukraine and Russia have traded accusations over the deployment of mines.

But Britain’s Ministry of Defense blamed Russia.

“Though the origin of such mines remains unclear and disputed, their presence is almost certainly due to Russian naval activity in the area and demonstrates how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is affecting neutral and civilian interests,” it said on Twitter.

Almost certainly there would be no mines or farming disruptions if Russia had not attacked Ukraine – after months of saying it had no such plans.

On April 13, Russia declared it had taken full control of the port of Mariupol after seven weeks of bombardment that destroyed much of the city and killed as many as 20,000 civilians, according to estimates by Ukrainian officials.

Mariupol is the largest Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov and one of eastern Ukraine’s most important agricultural ports.

According to U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Russia targeted three civilian ships carrying goods from the Black Sea ports to the world. Sherman said Ukrainian officials accused Russia of “actively targeting grains silos and food storage facilities.”

Ukrainian farmers – who produced a record grain crop last year – say they now are short of fertilizer, as well as pesticides and herbicides. They are having trouble getting seeds and fuel, Reuters reported last month.

Ukrainian officials have moved to protect domestic supplies to ensure food is getting to Ukrainians’ tables. Farmers also fear they might be targeted by Russian attacks or run across unexploded munitions in the fields.

“Some people can’t fertilize their crop because the Russians are shooting everything that moves,” Jonathan Clibborn, an Irish farmer, told National Geographic. “There are reports of them mining the fields, the roads to the fields, not to mention a lot of unexploded ordnance and bodies in the fields.”

“I think [wheat] yields will be on the floor – maybe a third or a quarter of what they’d normally be,” Clibborn said.

Ukraine and Russia together produce 30 percent of the world’s traded wheat and 12 percent of its calories, National Geographic reported. Without Ukrainian and Russian food exports, the world could see a wave of instability similar to the 2012 Arab Spring.

To be sure, global food security is endangered by the disruption of trade and commerce with Russia, one of the world's top wheat producers along with China and India. Companies are exiting Russia and pausing their operations.

Since Russia’s attack began, U.S. and European Union governments imposed waves of sweeping economic sanctions on Russia. Moscow has been blaming those sanctions for causing the food crisis, and Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to limit food exports to “unfriendly countries.”

On March 22, Niels Graham and Inbar Pe'er said in an analysis published by the Atlantic Council, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, that although food is not sanctioned, and wheat production has not ceased due to logistical disruption, merchants and banks are refraining from doing business with Russia, fearing fines by governments.

In addition, because of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, war-risk insurance rates jumped at least 400 percent for ships navigating the Black Sea, which dramatically raises the cost of trading with Russia.

Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Program (WFP), told National Public Radio that the war has exacerbated the international economic situation and that “the timing of this unnecessary, unwanted, unjustified war couldn’t have been worse.” Commenting on why Russia’s food exports would be affected even though they are not sanctioned, Husain said: “If you're tainted, nobody's going to do business with you, even if it is allowed.”

On April 11, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, accused Russia of “causing scarcity” and “provoking hunger in the world.”

On top of everything else, soaring fertilizer prices have forced farmers around the world to adjust by limiting cultivation. In 2020, Russia and Belarus accounted for more than 20% of the world’s fertilizer exports.

On March 11, the World Food Program warned that 2022 could be a year of “catastrophic hunger,” as Ukraine is a major supplier of food to the group.