Russia Blames Ukraine For Food Crisis Created By Russian Invasion

As Russian warships blockade Ukrainian ports while Russian missiles strike Ukrainian grain facilities, Russian officials and state media figures have begun accusing the government in Kyiv of creating a global food crisis.

But facts on the ground do not support the arguments.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the situation in his opening remarks at a virtual roundtable discussion on June 6 on "Food Security Issues Arising from Russia's Invasion of Ukraine,"

"A Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea is preventing Ukraine's crops from being shipped to their normal destinations...President Putin is stopping food from being shipped and is aggressively using his propaganda machine to deflect or distort responsibility because he hopes it'll get the world to give in to him and end the sanctions. In other words, quite simply put, it's blackmail," Blinken said.

The US Department of State has accused Russia of using hunger as a weapon.

The status quo described by Blinken nearly two weeks ago has not materially changed. In an interview with Newsweek conducted on June 18, Dmitri Barinov, deputy head of the Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority, provided further details.

"Before the war, Ukraine exported up to 5 million tons of agricultural products per month,"
Barinov said, "and every year, that figure was growing."

"But now that Russia is temporarily occupying the ports of Mariupol, Berdyansk, Skhadovsk, and Kherson," he added, "and now that its warships are blocking the ports that remain under Ukrainian control in Mykolaiv and Odesa regions, it is impossible to ship out the harvest."

Despite Russian accusations that the responsibility for this situation lies with Ukraine, which has placed mines around Odesa as one line of defense against a potential Russian amphibious assault, Barinov said that it is Russian actions that are scaring off commercial shippers.

Grain Warehouse Kherson
A Ukrainian army officer inspects a grain warehouse in Novovorontsovka, Ukraine, shelled by Russian forces on May 6, 2022. Russia has been accused of targeting food storage sites in frontline areas and generally degrading Ukraine's wheat production, potentially causing a global shortage. JOHN MOORE/GETTY IMAGES

"Russia has actually mined the approaches to the Black Sea," Barinov said. "They have fired on approximately ten commercial ships since the start of the war. In one incident, a sailor on a Bangladeshi-flagged vessel was killed."

As a result, grain has been piling up at storage facilities in areas under Ukrainian control.

"20 million tons of grain are still left over to be exported from last year's harvest, and the new harvest is already beginning," Barinov explained. "Ports on the Danube are shipping 1.3 million tons per month, as opposed to 400,000 [tons] before the war, but it's still not possible to substitute completely for the loss of the Black Sea ports."

An increase in overland shipments is helping to alleviate the glut, but trucks and trains are not a panacea.

"One standard-sized ship can transport 100,000 tons of grain," Barinov said. "That's the equivalent of 5,000 trucks. Unless the seaports are opened up, countries that depend on Ukrainian agricultural production will continue to suffer."

He sees only one clear-cut way to end the crisis.

"Russia needs to stop threatening the peaceful passage of commercial shipping," Barinov said. "There are approximately 70 ships flying under third-country flags still blocked in Ukrainian ports, and there is an expiration date on the grain in these ships."

Across Ukraine, farmers are preparing to bring in a new harvest, which will need to be processed, dried, and stored. However, unless last year's crop can be moved out of grain storage facilities in the coming weeks, there may not be anywhere to put the new yield.

Maxar field
A Maxar WorldView-2 image shows fields northwest of Slovyansk, Ukraine, peppered with artillery craters. The image was captured on June 6, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies

Aleksei Kondratenko, a farmer in the Mykolaiv region, told Newsweek about the challenges that the Russian invasion has created.

"The seaports are completely blocked, and so it's become almost impossible to move grain out of storage for export," Kondratenko said. "There are some possibilities to use the ports on the Danube River, and also to send shipments overland by rail, but those options are more expensive, and with the rise in fuel prices, they're inaccessible to most farmers."

Contrary to Russian reports, however, farmers have not resorted to burning last year's leftover grain.

"The idea of Ukraine burning its agricultural produce is a complete lie," Kondratenko said. "If we can't export, small farmers will use grain as seed for next year's planting, or they'll use it as animal feed, or they'll barter it for something else."

Russian forces, however, are actively attempting to prevent farmers like Kondratenko from bringing in this year's harvest.

"Last week, the Russians bombed a storage facility in the Mykolaiv region, and they've hit processing facilities in Lysychansk and Dnipro," he said. "Now they're attacking storage facilities for the fuel we use to run our equipment."

In addition to the Russian attacks that Kondratenko mentioned, Russian rockets also hit a railway maintenance facility in Kyiv on June 7. The facility was involved in servicing grain hoppers used for overland export of the Ukrainian harvest.

However, Russia's repeated attacks on Ukraine's agricultural infrastructure do not mean that Russia has been blocking absolutely all grain shipments from the territory of Ukraine. In comments quoted in media outlet Ukrinform back in May, Ukrainian First Deputy Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Taras Vysotsky said that Russia had been confiscating grain from occupied regions and sending it on to third countries.

"We see that about half a million tons of grain have been stolen," Vysotsky said. "There is evidence from all the temporarily occupied regions — Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv."

"Cargo is taken either to Russia, primarily from Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk regions, or through temporarily occupied Crimea," he added, "from the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions."

In early June, satellite imaging company Maxar published photographs of the Russian ship Matros Poznich being loaded with grain at the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea. The same ship was photographed eight days later at a dock in Latakia, Syria. A Maxar image from June 12 shows a different ship ready to be loaded with grain at the port of Sevastopol, though the ultimate destination of that ship was not clear.

Maxar ship
Maxar satellite imagery captured a Russian ship being loaded with grain at the port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea on June 12, 2022. Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies.

Reports of Russian grain seizures in occupied territories also correspond with commentary from Ukrainian farmers themselves. Kondratenko, the Mykolaiv region farmer, is still in contact with colleagues in occupied Kherson.

"If a field falls under occupation, the Russians take all of the equipment and give the farmer the option of working under a specific type of agreement: they will take 70% of the harvest, and the farmer will keep 30% to sell and to plant next year's crop," Kondratenko said.

A farmer from the occupied Kherson region, who asked not to be named for this story, gave the same figures when he described the scheme to Newsweek back in May.

Russia, however, denies that its actions are contributing to the growing world food crisis.

When confronted on June 8 with a question about Russia's theft of grain from occupied territory in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that it was necessary "to rid eastern Ukraine from the pressure of the neo-Nazi regime [in Kyiv]."

Lavrov went on to claim that Russia was not obstructing the transportation of agricultural products.

"We have explained that grain can be transported freely to its appointed destination. From the Russian side, there are no obstacles," he said. "It is only necessary for President Zelensky to give the order to allow international and Ukrainian ships to exit the Black Sea."

Russian state media has also been claiming that the Ukrainian side is to blame for any disruption in exports. In a segment that is representative of the way the grain crisis is presented on Russian television, a June 13 news broadcast described the circumstances as follows:

"They say there is a worldwide food crisis, but, first of all, Ukraine's share of the world's wheat market is negligibly small. And secondly, Ukraine is blocking its grain itself by refusing to demine its ports and by not wanting to use the humanitarian corridors which Russia has proposed. So what's the noise all about?"

In a June 9 segment on the political talk show Time Will Tell, co-host Olesya Loseva claimed that "to the Ukrainian regime, Ukrainians are nothing more than biological waste...the warmongers in Kyiv, in order to inflict as much harm as possible on their own citizens, are burning grain that was in storage."

Russian talk show host Olesya Loseva's claims about hunger in Mykolaiv were quickly refuted by local residents. Hunger in the wider world, however, remains a real threat.

Despite widespread warnings that the ongoing war in Ukraine could bring millions of people in Africa and the Middle East to the brink of starvation, there is little sign that the Kremlin is prepared to change its tack. In remarks given at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 17, Russia Today head Margarita Simonyan commented on the world food crisis.

"In Moscow, a very cynical joke has appeared, although it isn't even a joke, it's an exclamation," Simonyan said. "All of our hopes lie in hunger. It means that, when the famine starts, they [Western countries] will come to their senses and lift sanctions and be friends with us, because they will realize that not being friends with us is impossible."

Newsweek reached out to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to ask what must be done if such a famine is to be avoided.

"WFP continues to call for the immediate reopening of Black Sea ports to protect Ukrainian agricultural production and food exports that are critical to global food security," the WFP said in a statement. "We are seriously concerned about the devastating impact of food price hikes on the world's most vulnerable people. We are running out of time and the global community must come together to prevent a tragic hunger catastrophe from unfolding."