DANIEL VAUGHAN: Russia's Food War: A Dark Turn in Ukraine

 July 31, 2023

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has taken a darker turn in recent weeks. The West's squandering of advantages over Russia in the past year created a stalemate that allowed Russia to reassert itself. The euphoria over a potential coup in the Kremlin has given way to the new reality that Russia is attempting to starve both Ukraine and poor countries dependent on Ukrainian food exports.

First, Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal, which allowed Ukrainian wheat and grain exports to leave the country for other ports. Russia holds a blockade over the Black Sea, preventing Ukraine from doing much in the area. For the past year, a deal negotiated by Turkey allowed limited exports, which helped prevent a food crisis in several poor countries. Russia is now treating all ships in this area as potential enemy combatants, ending any real way for Ukraine to export via sea.

Russia’s Food Blockade

Immediately after pulling out of the deal, Russia began a sustained offensive on Ukraine's food stores and export capabilities. Russian military strikes hit multiple places where Ukraine stored grains like wheat, corn, oats, and other commodities, eradicating food stores many countries need to avoid famine.

Russia also attacked key river ports, hampering the possible shipment through rivers into Europe. A reasserted blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports and the bombing of crucial port areas along the sea has effectively ended any ability to ship food exports out.

Western Response and Repercussions

The Biden administration's State Department trotted out for a press conference to state the blindingly obvious: "I think it ought to be quite clear to everyone in the world right now that Russia is using food as a weapon of war, not just against the Ukrainian people, but against all the people in the world, especially the most underdeveloped countries who depend on grain from the region."

Russia has weaponized food and other commodities like oil multiple times to drive the war toward its desired conclusion. The United States has responded with various economic sanctions to push the war in the opposite direction, including weaponizing the US dollar.

The Human Cost of War

The faux shock from the State Department and the White House isn't remotely believable. It was always given Russia would eventually move to try and suffocate Ukraine and use any means possible to achieve victory. Shockingly, the White House appears wholly unprepared for this scenario.

The countries most impacted by Russia's latest move are trying to negotiate with Vladimir Putin directly to avoid death and famine in their borders. Putin has jumped on this development, promising free grain while blasting the "hypocritical West."

Biden's stance on Ukraine, raising ideals and human rights, is noble language. But it rings hollow when you're talking to the innocent starving in Africa and the Middle East, who have long depended on Ukrainian exports to survive.

Ukraine: A Nation in Exodus

We're entering the 18th month of this conflict, and the United States has no apparent long-term strategy. Supporting Ukraine with arms is great, but we need to have a broad plan for Ukraine's future. Right now, Ukraine faces a demographic crisis. Its population is shrinking, with some estimates saying the country's population could shrink by a third.

The New York Times visited a field hospital in Ukraine. There's a hardened determination but dwindling hope for a post-war society. Foreign fighters working with Ukraine have started leaving, seeing nothing in the counter-offensive.

Current reports say that "more than 8 million Ukrainians have fled their country and become refugees across Europe since Russia's invasion, according to UN data. More than 5.3 million others are still estimated to be internally displaced within Ukraine."

US Must Seek an End Point

What Ukraine has pulled off in the face of monumental odds is a staggering accomplishment. The West's insistence that Ukraine continue defying the odds while seeking no end to the conflict makes no sense. The point here is not to surrender to Russia but seek a negotiated solution that saves lives.

And when I say save lives, I'm talking about Ukrainians, Russians, and people threatened by famine from this war. The number of dead from direct war casualties potentially stretches into the hundreds of thousands. Those who could end up dying from food shortages are impossible to know.

Last year, the United States had a chance when Ukraine engaged in a successful counter-offensive pushing Russia back. But officials in DC seemed more fond of joking about Ukraine marching to Moscow rather than ending the conflict. Now we're back in a meat grinder war with famine and more war dead being promised by the day.

The Biden administration's policy encourages the war to continue for as long as possible to debilitate Russia as much as conceivable. There's no doubt that this is a strategic interest for the United States. There's a real human cost to that, too. The longer the war goes on, the higher the human cost and the longer the recovery ends up being. The US won't just fund the war effort — we'll support the recovery and rebuilding.

For Ukraine's sake, we must ensure there are people and things to rebuild.

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