By Charles Pierson
World food prices soared after Russia imposed a naval blockade on Ukraine following its February 24, 2022 invasion. The blockade has prevented grain and other foodstuffs from leaving Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. The Black Sea Grain Initiative (“BSGI”), mediated by Turkey and the UN, and signed by Russia and Ukraine on July 22, 2022, afforded Ukraine a measure of relief from the Russian blockade, sending world food prices down. However, following Russia’s departure from the BSGI on July 17, world food prices are headed up again. The world’s poorest and most food-insecure people face the possibility of starvation.
On July 18, Russia’s ambassador to Kenya Dmitry Maksimychev published an op-ed in the Nairobi Star. The op-ed asks the question “Who Is Really Weaponising Food?” That’s easy. Russia is. Any other questions?
Ambassador Maksimychev’s op-ed is an appeal to Africans and a defense against the charge that Russia is “weaponizing food to make Africans suffer” and has “undermined Africa’s food security.” Instead, Maksimychev writes that it is the West that is “selfishly channeling most (26 of 32 million tons) of the Ukrainian grain to the EU and other higher-income countries….” If the ambassador’s figures are correct, a staggering 81% of Ukrainian wheat went to the EU and other high-income countries and only 19% to the world’s poor.
Those figures gibe with those of the World Bank which say that 44% of Ukraine’s exports before Russia pulled out of the BSGI went to high-income countries. Only 20% went to low- and lower-middle income countries.
Are the figures reliable? One fact which casts doubt on the Russian figures’ accuracy is that Russia treats exports of grain from Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine as Russian exports.1 If third parties like the World Bank rely on the Russian figures, they will reach the same faulty conclusions as the Russian government.
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According to Ambassador Maksimychev, the West forced Russia to exit the BSGI by not honoring its commitment “to lift the illegal restrictions that they unilaterally imposed on the Russian exports of food and fertilisers to the global market.”
This sounds awfully familiar. Listen to the Kremlin and you’ll learn that Russia does bad things only when it’s forced to. Russia uses the same rationale to justify its invasion of Ukraine. According to Putin, Russia was forced to invade Ukraine because NATO ignored Russia’s repeated warnings about NATO expanding towards Russia’s borders. Russia had no choice but to invade Ukraine in order to ensure Russia’s survival. The patent absurdity of this idea ought to be apparent to all; unfortunately, much of the Left accepts it unquestioningly.
Ambassador Maksimychev claims that Russia has “faithfully” fulfilled all of its obligations under the BSGI (“the West was, as usual, cheating”). “All” its obligations? I can think of at least two Russian violations of the BSGI. First, Russia bombed Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odesa the day after it signed the BSGI. Moscow continues to bomb Ukraine’s grain silos and port facilities. Second, Ukraine claims that Russia dragged its feet over inspecting ships headed to Ukraine. That delayed desperately needed food from reaching nations teetering on the edge of famine.
His Master’s Voice
Maksimychev faithfully echoes his master in the Kremlin. Witness Putin’s July 24, 2023 essay: “Russia and Africa: Joining Efforts for Peace, Progress and a Successful Future.”2 Putin needs the developing countries’ support for his war on Ukraine, so he can’t have them think he’s screwing them over. To demonstrate his purported solidarity with Africa, Putin sounds anti-imperial themes (“We have consistently supported African peoples in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression”). He looks forward to the end of “colonialism and neo-colonialism” in the Global South, and grows misty-eyed at the thought that “a new multipolar world order, the contours of which are already seen, will be more just and democratic.”
Putin underscores Russia’s contributions to Africa’s development. Russia has trained “tens of thousands of African doctors, technical specialists, engineers, officers and teachers.” He makes it clear that Russia has always stood up for Africa (except when the Wagner Group is robbing African countries blind.)
Putin withdrew from the BSGI, he says, because it’s unfair. The agreement is unfair because it gives the lion’s share of Ukrainian grain to countries that need it the least. Under the BSGI, 70% of Ukrainian wheat went to “high- and upper-middle-income countries, including in the European Union,” with “less than 3 percent” going to “such countries as Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, as well as Yemen and Afghanistan.” It would take a proctologist to figure out where Putin and Maksimychev get these figures.
How could Putin remain in the BSGI when it mistreated Africa so badly? Putin writes: “while it was publicly advertised by the West as a gesture of goodwill that benefited Africa, [the BSGI] has in fact been shamelessly used solely for the enrichment of large US and European businesses that exported and resold grain from Ukraine.”3 Take note of that “solely.” Putin is saying that the BSGI has not benefited Africa at all.
Ignore those places in Putin’s article which suggest that Putin signed on to the BSGI in pursuit of sanctions relief. Even this turns out to be unselfish. Sanctions on Russian exports “severely hamper the supply of Russian food products to developing countries, complicating transport logistics, insurance arrangements and bank payments.”
Horseshit. If Putin were concerned about Third World hunger he never would have imposed the blockade in the first place. He never would have invaded Ukraine.
Putin is not so overburdened with allies that he can afford to lose any. Putin has decided that he can buy off Africa and that the way to do this is with free grain. At Putin’s Russia-Africa summit in late July, Putin pledged 25,000 to 50,000 tons of free grain to each of six African countries: Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and Central African Republic. Putin can afford to be generous; according to the Ukrainian Grain Association, his troops have stolen 4 million tons of Ukrainian grain. Will Putin’s stratagem succeed? We shall see.
1 H/t Szymon Martys.
2 At 1700 words, this article is positively terse compared with Putin’s 6,000 word essay of July 12, 2021, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in which Putin shared his conviction that Ukraine does not exist.
3 Vladimir Putin, “Russia and Africa: Joining Efforts for Peace, Progress and a Successful Future,” July 24, 2023 (emphasis added).