Using Famine as a Lever: Putin Weaponizes the Global Food Supply

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Fertilizer is just one of the reasons that many farmers south of the equator are abandoning their fields and seeking livelihoods on the outskirts of the big cities. In a village like Kesi, the problem is the rain that no longer falls. Elsewhere, it’s tropical storms, floods or insect infestations that are making things difficult.

The scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have outlined what this means for agriculture in their latest assessment report. They conclude that the global corn crop could decline by up to 45 percent on a planet that is 2 degrees Celsius warmer. In the case of wheat, which already forms fewer grains in the ear at 31 degrees Celsius during flowering, that figure would be around 12 percent.

Moving Grain By Rail

Almost five months after the beginning of the war, one might think that a limit had been reached, a period of reflection. But a visit to Reni, one of Ukraine’s most important inland ports, quickly banishes such thoughts. Here, around 300 kilometers by road southwest of Odessa, on the border with Moldova and Romania, ships are lined up on the Danube. Around 5,000 drivers are waiting on the highway leading to the port for their trucks to be processed. The bushes are full of plastic litter. It stinks of urine.

Many men are napping in the cabins of their trucks, while others are huddling together and complaining about the lack of toilets or about all the bureaucracy. Lenin, one growls, is still in command in Reni.

Almost overnight, Reni has become a place upon which hundreds of thousands of lives depend. Nervous traders, truckers and logistics professionals here are trying to get Ukrainian grain out of the country. The clock is ticking, says entrepreneur Dmytro Golubyev, who is currently converting an old, thermo-insulated vegetable warehouse near the port into a 20,000-ton granary because of a lack of storage capacity at the river port. The silos are critical, because the summer harvest needs to be stored cool and dry before it is shipped. If it’s not, it becomes susceptible to mold and pests.

The clock is ticking, agrees Viorel Panait of Romania as he steers his SUV along the roads of the Black Sea port of Constanța, 200 kilometers to the south. Panait, wearing jeans with a pressed shirt, is responsible for the operations of a company that loads cargo from smaller ships arriving via the Danube-Black Sea Canal, including those from Reni, onto larger freighters.

More and more Ukrainian exports are now passing through Romania, but Constanța is also a bottleneck. As in Reni, the loading cranes, which are standing idle on this morning, date back to bygone eras. And the oldest silos have been around for 120 years. Hundreds of discarded freight cars stand on the overgrown tracks.

To speed things up a bit, Panait says they bought a new conveyor belt in March for 4 million euros. Given the volumes of grain that need to be moved out of Ukraine, it would actually make sense to modernize the infrastructure on a larger scale. But such investments are risky, says Panait, because nobody knows how long the ports in Odessa and Kherson will remain closed.

“We need guarantees,” Panait says, with a hint of annoyance in his voice. After all, it is absurd that in these times, the flow of grain depends solely on the commitment of private companies. The logistics companies of Constanța recently sent a kind of wish list to the EU. Panait wants 500 million euros for equipment and machinery, “a small effort” for Europe, he says, that would double their capacity. But the request is stuck somewhere in Brussels, as is an action plan adopted in May that called on member states to establish “solidarity corridors” for the export of the grain.

This plan, written by the European Commission, details trucks or train cars that market participants should make available to expedite transports. In a June meeting of the EU Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR), the agency “reiterated the urgency” of transportation corridors, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by DER SPIEGEL.

Border stations, where grain sits for an average of 16 days before being transferred from the larger Ukrainian railway track gauge, a relic of the Soviet era, to the narrower one of neighboring countries, are to become more transit friendly. The plan states that hygiene controls and customs duties should be eliminated to expedite exports. But even the EU can’t work faster than the cranes in Constanța. As recently as the end of June, much was still in the “finalization phase,” according to Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean.

All of this means that logistics entrepreneur Panait is faced with the dilemma of having to perform some sort of grain triage. It’s not only Ukrainian farmers who harvest in July, but also their Romanian counterparts. One of Panait’s associates says that it makes more sense from a logistical point of view to ship the Romanian grain. Although such a move would show little by way of solidarity.

The inland ports, the freight stations, the matchmaking platform touted by EU Commissioner Vălean where Ukrainian producers can search for grain shippers, the improvised warehouses now springing up all along the border – all of these are attempts to re-link the old cogs again. At the end of the day, though, roads, rails and canals will never have the capacity of a seaport.

Replacing an average commodity freighter would require around 2,400 trucks, or 34 freight trains of 32 cars each. Each ship with a cargo capacity of 60,000 tons that Hysiyenko launches in Odessa, holds approximately as much grain as the Austrian Federal Railways have taken out of the country since the beginning of the war.

Powerlessness in the West

Hence the tired eyes with which Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi, 43, presents the crucial figures from behind a conference table on the third floor of his ministry. In normal years, he says, his country’s grain exports are as high as 6 million tons during the harvest months. In March, that figure was only 200,000 tons. In April, 1 million. In May, 1.5 million. ” If we exhaust all means available to us,” he told DER SPIEGEL in an interview  in June, “we will hopefully reach a monthly export of 2 to 2.5 million tons.” That’s the limit, the most that you can get out without the ports.

Solskyi leaned forward.

“Many people in Asian, Arab and North African countries still believe that the problem of this war will somehow take care of itself,” he said. “Some countries also have grain reserves. But these will be used up in two months and the war will still be going, with no new grain coming from us. The pressure will increase significantly around the world.”

Life may have returned to the cafés around the corner on Kyiv’s Maidan square, but Russia’s war of aggression has destroyed or rendered unusable around 30 percent of Ukraine’s arable land. If farms that are now living off their seed and fertilizer stocks don’t sell anything this summer, they will be out of business this winter because they will be out of money. Rotten or unsold grain means there won’t be any money left to plant the seeds next year. Preventing that from happening, Solskyi says, will require an immediate, and not an eventual, end of the blockade.

But how might that work? Solskyi shrugs his shoulders. “As long as Putin doesn’t get in the way,” he says, “it wouldn’t be that hard.”

In May, when Egypt refused a shipment from Russian on the suspicion that it contained stolen goods from Ukraine, for a brief moment it looked as though there might be some movement on the issue.

After Russian diplomats held talks in Turkey with the Turkish president’s representatives and the United Nations, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia suddenly wrote of a deal that could restore grain shipments from ports like Odessa. The article stated that the Turkish military would help to clear mines and could establish security corridors through which they would escort freighters to neutral waters. The news led to a drop in wheat prices.

But they rose again shortly thereafter when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again made the easing of Western sanctions a condition for lifting the naval blockade during a visit to Ankara. There was also no longer any talk of an end to the export restrictions that Russia had announced in the meantime.

Putin holds the trump cards, and he’s playing for time. With each passing day, he seems to be getting closer to his dream of an OPEC for grain.

“We can’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by Putin,” German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir said in Berlin in late June, after a delegation of more than 50 countries made the decision to launch the Alliance for Food Security. “Now, it’s also about showing what we’re made of.”

But how is a reopening of the ports going to happen without a loosening of the sanctions? What can the West do if it doesn’t want to wait for Putin to move on the issue voluntarily?

Armed Escorts?

The most specific proposal so far came from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who suggested weeks ago that a “coalition of the willing” could move escort ships into the region to safely escort grain freighters out of the Black Sea. Russia expert Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) also believes that bold decisions are needed. “Even if it is difficult to implement,” she says, such a military-secured corridor is the best option.

The difficulty comes from the fact that the Russian fleet could view escort ships as legitimate war targets. And Putin could interpret such armed convoys, even if they fly a humanitarian flag, as direct Western intervention in the war effort.

Because these concerns prevailed, Landsbergis’ proposal disappeared from the discussion again. It petered out, as did the suggestion that Putin would be placed in a moral bind if the escort ships were to come from affected countries like Egypt.

Hopes are thus now focused on reaching an agreement at the talks taking place in Istanbul. In Berlin, one of the proposals currently circulating looks as follows: Ukraine would provide a sea corridor that would be cleared of mines and thus made passable. Ukraine would escort freighters belonging to private companies within its territorial waters. Prior to sailing into Ukrainian waters, the transport ships would likely have to be checked for hidden arms deliveries, but it is unclear by whom. Russia, according to the plan, would then allow the cargo to pass.

Turkey is leading the negotiations and is spreading the word in diplomatic circles that it is anticipating a breakthrough. But significant questions remain unanswered. The most crucial: Who takes control of the ships? Turkey, working together with the United Nations, could be one possibility. But Russia apparently rejects that scenario. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during her trip to Asia that Russia was trying to “keep the United Nations out” when it comes to grain shipments.

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