Russo-Ukrainian Conflict: Is the Kremlin using food as a weapon of war

On 17 July, Russia announced its withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The UN initiated the initiative in July of last year to ease the movement of grain from Ukraine after Russia invaded and blocked cargoes on the Black Sea.

The grain prices immediately soared, causing food insecurity for many developing and poor countries. Ukraine and Russia are two of the largest exporters in the world of sunflower oil and grain. Ukraine supplies half of the wheat that is consumed by African countries.

The Black Sea Initiative has seen the trade of approximately 33.5 million tonnes of agricultural products. The withdrawal of Russia has caused a disruption in the food supply for countries that desperately need grains.

Russia warned that all ships heading to Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea will be treated as potential military cargo, meaning they will be attacked. Not only import-dependent nations have suffered. Ukraine is also facing serious food insecurity.

The series of targeted Russian attacks on Ukraine’s agriculture infrastructure immediately following its departure shocked the world. Russia bombed Odesa and Chornomorsk, which are port cities where grain is usually exported.

According to the Ukrainian government, the attacks have destroyed 60,000 tons of grain and damaged a large amount of storage infrastructure. Ukraine produces 40% less grain than before the invasion. Vast farmlands are under occupation, and agricultural activities have stopped. Russia has planted mines on farms and destroyed food stores and shops.

Read The coverage of Down to Earth.

The attacks bring back a painful memory for Ukrainians—”Holodomor.” This Ukrainian word for “hunger extermination” refers to the famine of 1932-33 in the country, then a part of Soviet Russia.

Joseph Stalin, a specific target for Ukraine, imposed collectivization in agriculture in 1929. The land and products were taken, but nothing was left for the local population. According to many studies, four million Ukrainians have died from hunger.

Holodomor was a striking example of using “food/starvation” as a tactic in war or conflict. This tactic is as old and as prevalent as the conflicts that we have experienced. Abraham Lincoln signed the Lieber Code of War Conduct in 1863. It is still used as the basis for similar regulations. The code stated that it was legal to starve an enemy belligerent, whether armed or not, to speed up surrender.

Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, reportedly said, “Who controls food supply controls people.” Adolf Hitler’s “Hunger Plan,” during World War II, killed over 4 million Soviets; food was taken for German soldiers and civilians.

In May 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417, which, for the first time, condemned “starvation” as a form of warfare and listed sanctions.

Is Russia using its food as a weapon? At least in Ukraine, there is a growing belief that Russia is using food as a weapon. It seems that the fragile, centralized food system of the world — where a few countries are responsible for most food production while others depend on it — is a target to exercise strategic strength.

In many UNSC sessions after the Russian invasion, members discussed its targeted attacks, describing them as “food used as a weapon” in the context of global food security. In order to continue the grain deal with Russia, Russia requested that sanctions be lifted on the Russian Agricultural Bank as well as reopen supply lines for agricultural machinery and parts.

Leaders around the world called Russia’s bombing and withdrawal an attack against everyone who relies on Ukrainian foodgrains. It could be a form of food weapon that not only starves the local population but also disrupts a global supply network.

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