How Russia Is Using Food to Divide the U.S. From Africa | Opinion

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a busy week last week. His whistle-stop tour of African capitals was designed to send a clear message: Western sanctions, not Russia's months-long Black Sea blockade, are responsible for record-high food prices that are leaving tens of millions on the brink of starvation worldwide.

This line is nothing new. Russia recognized well before us the role food security would play in shaping the world's response to Putin's invasion. As leaders grapple with how to respond to the conflict's fallout, the West has found itself with fewer allies and more vulnerable to Russian propaganda than it expected.

In June, African Union chair and Senegalese President Macky Sall warned EU leaders that Putin's narrative was already "out there" in Africa. Just a few weeks later, he met Putin in-person in Sochi and repeated a key Russian talking point: "anti-Russia sanctions have made this situation worse".

The only way for the West to counter Putin's narrative is to prove it's taking the issue of food insecurity seriously. There's no short-term fix—the looming food crisis has not only laid bare the vulnerabilities of the global food system, but the consequences of Western powers' disengagement around the world in recent years.

Russia may have a formidable digital infrastructure to spread its disinformation, especially across large parts of Africa, but that doesn't mean there's no truth in its narrative.

Grain Passes Through the Bosphorus
The Maltese-flagged Rojen, which departed from Ukraine's Chornomorsk port carrying 13,000 tons of corn from Ukraine to the United Kingdom, passes through the Bosphorus on August 7, 2022, in Istanbul, Turkey. Cem Tekkesinoglu/DIA IMAGES

Some of the consequences of the West's response—soaring energy prices, the difficulty of paying for Russian grain and fertilizers through the SWIFT banking system, and logistics companies' over-compliance with sanctions—may not be malicious, but they're making life harder for struggling farmers. The United States and European Union need to be crystal clear that they are committed to mitigating knock-on effects from their sanctions—or risk fueling Russian talking points.

Just as important is recognizing the agency of the developing countries bearing the brunt of soaring prices. Sall's Sochi visit sounded understandable alarm bells, but we shouldn't mistake this for uncritical buy-in to the Kremlin's narrative. For us, this may often seem like a black-and-white fight, but picture the scene from the point of view of an African country that has no direct stake in the conflict—and yet is disproportionately suffering the fallout.

For many countries, picking a side is the last thing on their minds, but it's no surprise that many leaders, struggling to feed their populations, are open to help from anywhere.

Putin's invasion is also exposing a deeper problem. We need to ask ourselves the tough question: Why does Putin's narrative—that the West would apply sanctions with little thought to their impact on developing countries—have such global resonance?

Developing countries may not be blindly buying in to Putin's claims, but they haven't rushed to support Ukraine either. The reluctance to support the West is because we are seen as an unreliable partner, one that is quick to demand support when our own interests and values are at stake, but slower to offer it to other countries in need. In Yemen, Libya, and Syria—places where conflicts rage—many are questioning why Ukraine gets what they see as special treatment and why they're being asked to show a level of support they have rarely received in return.

The West's reputation will take a long time to improve, but we need to start now. The priority must be tackling a food crisis that will be measured in years, not months. That means humanitarian aid, but also immediate support to ensure small-holder farmers around the world can afford the equipment and fertilizers needed to protect next year's yields.

That's not to say we should shy away from tackling Putin's narrative head on. We must highlight the willful destruction of Ukrainian farms, equipment, and storage facilities that will make life difficult for developing countries not just this year, but for many to come.

But it will also mean a more meaningful restructuring of how we engage the rest of the world. That means proactively acknowledging where sanctions are causing knock-on problems. But it also requires the right plan for how the West engages effectively, consistently, and strategically around the world.

This—not a propaganda battle—is the best way to disprove Putin's narrative. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been a wake-up call for the West about the state of our energy supplies, our military capability and, now, the state of our global alliances. The looming global food crisis is the clearest signal yet that the way we engage with the world is due a serious rethink.

Ruby Osman is Senior Geopolitical Researcher at the Tony Blair Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.