At the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to justify his war in Ukraine while railing against the West.
Few Western states joined the showcase event, helping make China’s participation more pronounced. China’s President Xi Jinping addressed the forum virtually on June 18, stressing Beijing’s steadfast support for Moscow. Chinese media coverage of the address featured more spin of the fallout from Russia’s invasion.
On June 16, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Victoria Abramchenko weighed in on the global food crisis, which the war in Ukraine has worsened.
Abramchenko said the COVID-19 pandemic caused shocks to the global food market, and she claimed the large-scale sanctions levied against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine had worsened matters.
"In addition to a series of factors caused by the [COVID-19] pandemic, there are additional risk factors associated with the air and sea blockades [of Russia],” China’s state-run CGTN cited Abramchenko as saying.
“This means that we are not able to supply food to the places around the world that desperately need it. Or that we can still deliver it, but only at twice the price.”
CGTN summarized Abramchenko’s comments with this headline: “Western sanctions on Russia worsen global food crisis: Russian Deputy PM.”
That is false. In fact, evidence suggests Russia is manufacturing a food crisis to get sanctions lifted. While there is no blockade of foodstuffs leaving Russia, Russia is blockading – and allegedly pilfering – exports of Ukrainian grain.
Russian and Ukraine are not the world’s largest wheat producers, but they do account for roughly 20% and 10% of its wheat exports, respectively. Experts say disruptions to either will impact the global supply of food, and Russia is doing a great deal to disrupt the export of Ukrainian grain.
In May, the executive director of the United Nations World Food Program, David Beasley, warned Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports threatened millions of lives worldwide.
“Truly, failure to open those ports in Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security,” said Beasley. “And it will result in famine and destabilization and mass migration around the world.”
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, said Russia is to blame for the global food crisis, not EU sanctions.
“Russia is blockading Ukrainian exports,” ABC News quoted Borrell as saying. “Not us. Russia is destroying ports, and destroying food stocks, destroying transport infrastructure.”
Borrell said Russia’s blockade of roughly 25 million metric tons of grain trapped in Ukrainian ports is “a deliberate attempt (by Russia) to create hunger in the world.” He dismissed Moscow’s attempts to pin the food crisis on the West as “propaganda.”
Top Russian officials have falsely claimed the invasion of Ukraine and naval blockade of Ukrainian ports and grain exports have had “nothing to do with the food crisis,” as Polygraph.info and others have reported.
U.S. ambassador Jim O’Brien, head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination, likewise dismissed as “misleading” claims that U.S. sanctions are hurting food exports.
“The U.S. does not sanction Russian food and fertilizer,” O’Brien told the Voice of America. “Russia has disrupted one of the most productive ways that countries received grain. Ukraine used to export 6 million or so tons of grain a month, mostly to the global South. And now that has had to stop; in March and April, it was very small.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss accused Putin of "trying to hold the world to ransom” and weaponizing hunger and a lack of food “among the poorest people around the world” to get sanctions lifted.
Speaking at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, Russia Today’s Editor-in-Chief Margarita Simonyan appeared to endorse the idea that a global famine would help Russia get out from under sanctions:
“To build on the idea of ‘people want to eat,’ you know, there is a very cynical joke, that appeared, not even a joke, just an outcry, in Moscow. I’ve heard it several times. It goes like, ‘All our hope is in the famine.’ Here is what it means.
“It means that the famine will start now and they will come to their senses and lift the sanctions and be friends with us, because they will realize that it’s impossible not to be friends with us.”
The comments of Simonyan, a leading Kremlin propagandist, might be taken as merely rhetorical. But apart from blocking Ukrainian ports, Russia’s armed forces have targeted farms, agricultural equipment and grain storage facilities in Ukraine.
After Russia destroyed a large grain storage terminal in the southern port city of Mykolaiv earlier this month, Borrell lashed out at Moscow’s attempts to blame sanctions.
"Another Russian missile strike contributing to the global food crisis. Russian forces have destroyed the second biggest grain terminal in #Ukraine, in #Mykolaiv," Borrell tweeted.
“In light of such reports, the disinformation spread by Putin deflecting blame becomes ever more cynical.”
The United States says there is evidence Russia is looking to sell looted wheat to drought-stricken countries in Africa, The New York Times reported.
By contrast, the sanctions against Russia do not include a blockade of grain, which Russia is free to ship by sea. With limited exceptions, sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and other allies do not target food, fertilizer and seeds.
The European Union has sanctioned the import of seafood and liquor (e.g. caviar, vodka), and certain fertilizers from Russia.
All this does not mean trade in non-sanctioned items from Russia has not been affected.
For example, while exemptions allow many Russian fertilizer exports, Bloomberg reports that “many shippers, banks and insurers” have avoided the trade, fearing they could “inadvertently fall afoul of the rules.” That has resulted in a 24% drop this year in Russian fertilizer exports.
As a result, Bloomberg reported, the U.S. government has encouraged “agricultural and shipping companies to buy and carry more Russian fertilizer.”
Still, complications like that are knock-on effects of Russia’s illegal war, and do not compare to Russia’s direct attacks on Ukrainian food production and export.
At a U.N. Security Council meeting on June 6, European Council President Charles Michel addressed Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya.
“[T]he Kremlin is using food supplies as a stealth missile against developing countries,” Michel said.
“The dramatic consequences of Russia’s war are spilling over across the globe, and this is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty and destabilizing entire regions. Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis. Russia alone, despite the Kremlin’s campaign of lies and disinformation.”
On June 8, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also warned of the dire consequences of Russia’ war.
“The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates the ripple effects of the war could increase the number of people facing severe food insecurity by 47 million in 2022,” he said. “In reality, there is only one way to stop this gathering storm in its tracks: The Russian invasion of Ukraine must end.”
Guterres said work was under way to help with “the safe and secure export of Ukrainian-produced food through the Black Sea, and unimpeded access to global markets for Russian food and fertilizers.”
“This deal is essential for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, including in sub‑Saharan Africa,” he said.