A Russian airstrike on a bridge south of Odesa has created yet another impediment to the export of Ukraine’s vast grain stores, with world leaders warning of an impending food crisis exacerbated by Russia's February invasion.
“That could have helped Ukraine to use Romanian and Bulgarian ports for export, so Russia has, on purpose, bombed that,” a senior European official told the Washington Examiner. “It wasn’t needed for military supplies. No, not at all. [It would have been] purely to help Ukraine export grain.”
The destruction of the bridge Tuesday coincided with the launch of a two-day diplomatic program at the United Nations. U.N. officials warned of a looming food shortage, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken jousted with Russian officials keen to shift the blame for a famine threat that could provide leverage in the geopolitical contest surrounding the war.
“The Russian government seems to believe that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not: to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people,” Blinken told the U.N. Security Council on Thursday. “It’s not only Ukrainians who are suffering. As a result of the Russian government’s actions, some 20 million tons of grain sit unused in Ukrainian silos as global food supplies dwindle [and] prices skyrocket, causing more around the world to experience food insecurity.”
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That dynamic could produce painful consequences around the world, including starvation in impoverished countries that could send global migration rates soaring.
“Refugees don't want to leave home, but if they don't have food, any degree of peace, they will do what every single person in this room would do as a leave to get that peace,” World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley said Wednesday during a session on food security. “We're now facing five times the number of people talking about migrating from Central America to the United States border — just in the past year, that number has increased that much. So it's going to cost us if we don't respond strategically and effectively.”
The warnings of food shortages have fallen on deaf ears in Moscow.
“You have to not only appeal to the Russian Federation but also look deeply at the whole complex of reasons that caused the current food crisis, and in the first instance, these are the sanctions that have been imposed against Russia by the U.S. and the EU that interfere with normal free trade, encompassing food products including wheat, fertilizers, and others,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said in a message directed at Beasley.
Another senior Russian envoy argued that the global need for food assistance stemmed more from U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the Western intervention in Libya's civil war, than Russia’s Ukraine campaign.
“What you're doing is you're taking hostage to the whole of the developing world — you're pushing it towards hunger,” Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said at the Security Council. “If you don't want to remove your sanctions of choice, then why are you accusing of causing this food crisis.”
Blinken sought to preempt that argument in both his Thursday appearance at the Security Council and in a prior meeting with 10 of his counterparts from countries across Africa “bearing some of the heaviest burdens” of the food crisis.
“The sanctions that dozens of countries have imposed on Russia after the invasion included very clear carveouts for food, for fertilizer, for seeds. But the Kremlin has chosen to deliberately hold back these exports from Ukraine,” Blinken said Wednesday. “There’s an abundance of grain, of wheat that was produced this year in Ukraine. It is just sitting there because it cannot get out of the country. Why can’t it get out of the country? Because Russia is blockading the ports from which it would leave and targeting, indeed, those ports, targeting farms and the lands for cultivation.”
Still, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres implied that some kind of bargain might be on the table, asserting that "Russian food and fertilizers must have unrestricted access to world markets” and urging the opening of Ukrainian ports before acknowledging “intense contact" with Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and other major powers.
“I am hopeful, but there is still a long way to go,” Guterres added.
Blinken’s meeting with the African countries, and the subsequent Russian rhetoric, pointed to the premium that both sides place on African assessments.
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“Russia is reaching out heavily saying this war is because of NATO colonial[ism], NATO aspirations, and trying to blame West. ... Although, what they are doing is a post-colonial war against Ukraine,” the senior European official said. “So at the moment, there is a campaign to put pressure on Russia, but for that, you need to win the hearts and minds of a U.N. majority.”