In Focus

Russia uses hunger as a weapon of war in Ukraine

Ukraine’s entire future is in peril as farmers are unable to harvest or sell grain

Ukraine and Russia aren’t just waging war on the battlefield, said Federica Marsi in Al Jazeera (Doha), they’re locked in conflict in the wheat ­field, too. Ukraine, the world’s fifth biggest wheat exporter, accounts for 9% of global sales. but since the Russian invasion, 22 million tons of grain have been rotting in silos inside the country. And with war raging, the wheat harvest is expected to fall by 40% this year. If the country’s farmers can’t farm or sell grain, Ukraine’s entire future is in peril.

Putin is using hunger as a weapon, said Daniel Hegedus on Transitions (Prague). And now that Russia has occupied most of Ukraine’s major ports and blockaded Kyiv’s main harbour, Odesa, the Black Sea has become the fulcrum of this conflict. Before the war, 90% of Ukraine’s wheat exports went by sea, and it’s quite a challenge to increase the amount sent overland by rail or truck. Ukraine’s railway has a wider gauge than its European neighbours, so every rail shipment must be unloaded and put on a different train. Thus, for now, “the best hope of averting famine” is to reopen exports from Odesa.

That’s where Turkey comes in, said Hilal Kaplan in Daily Sabah (Istanbul). Ankara has for months been striving to act as mediator in this conflict. It hasn’t made much headway because Ukraine has littered the Black Sea with mines to protect itself from Russian warships, making it hard to move goods out of its ports; and Kyiv, wary of the Russian threat, still refuses to clear the mines.

Yet Turkey has a powerful hand to play, as it controls access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. This month, Turkish officials, at Ukraine’s request, detained a Russian cargo ship about to enter the Bosphorus on suspicion it was carrying 7,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain stolen from the occu­pied port of Berdyansk. Kyiv claims Moscow has stolen 600,000 tonnes in total from its occupied territories to sell abroad, this being just the latest load.

Turkey is being duplicitous, as you can see from the way it has now let the ship sail on, said Timothy Ash in the Kyiv Post. It claims to be standing up for Ukraine’s interests, but it’s actually negotiating directly with Moscow, and has made “zero effort” to involve Kyiv or acknowledge its need for security guarantees before demining its ports. President Erdogan is unconcerned about the costs to Ukraine; he just sees an end to the war as the best way to ease Turkey’s economic crisis ahead of elections next year.

The good news said Leonid Bershidsky on Bloomberg (New York), is that even with its ports blocked, Ukraine has kept up a sizeable export stream. Meanwhile, the forecast of a bumper grain harvest in several other countries is driving wheat prices down. A “full-blown food crisis” is not, thankfully, on the cards.

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