Famines can be brought about by natural disasters or wars. The Eritrean famine that began in 1984 was caused by both. About 50 years earlier, in 1932, Josef Stalin inflicted famine on Ukraine in an attempted genocide.
Between 3.5 and 5 million Ukrainians died in a famine in what was then the state that produced the most grain in the Soviet Union. That Soviet-imposed famine is known in Ukraine as the “Holodomor,” which is a combination of Ukrainian words meaning “hunger” and “extermination.”
In its effort to strangle Ukraine’s economy, Russia has prevented it from using its Black Sea ports to export the millions of tons of wheat, corn and sunflower oil it produces every year. Odesa and Ukraine’s other major ports are blockaded. Mariupol, its other major port, has been essentially destroyed. As a result, global grain prices are increasing quickly, as much as 30% over last year. Wheat prices have reportedly increased by 80% since July and fertilizer prices are also soaring. The U.N. has said that grain prices could increase by another 20% or more this year.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “weaponizing Ukraine’s crops” as a tool to blackmail the rest of the world. Mr. Morawiecki is obviously correct. Mr. Putin’s regime has said that it could permit Ukraine to export grain if the economic sanctions imposed on Russia over its February invasion were lifted.
Before the February invasion, Russia and Ukraine have combined to export about 25% percent of the world’s wheat, with Ukraine accounting for about 8%, making it the world’s fourth-largest grain producer.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the war had increased food insecurity in many poorer nations because of rising prices. Mr. Guterres also said that the world could face long-term famines if Ukraine‘s exports are not restored to pre-war levels.
Mr. Putin’s blackmail is having considerable effects beyond the price increases. Egypt, which previously received about 80% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, faces shortages of bread that could destabilize its government.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, Egypt has sought billions of dollars in loans and investments from the International Monetary Fund and neighboring nations to support bread subsidy programs. Those programs subsidize food purchases for about 70 million Egyptians in a country having a population of about 103 million. (Iran, Turkey and Bangladesh had also received most of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia.)
The African Development Bank announced in May that it was spending about one and a half-billion dollars to help farmers buy seed, fertilizer and equipment to help increase the continent’s output and — it hopes — avert hunger. It is not likely to succeed because nations other than Ukraine and Russia are reducing their grain exports to avert shortages at home. India, the world’s second-biggest grain exporter behind China, banned wheat exports in May. China’s wheat crops reportedly will be diminished this year due to weather and other factors.
Some Ukrainian grain is being carried overland by train, and the European Union pledged last week to help Ukraine export millions of tons of grain over the next few months. Meanwhile, the June harvest will produce millions of more tons of Ukrainian grain the export of which Russia will keep trying to block.
A simple answer would be to force our way through the Russian blockade with the U.S. or NATO or a coalition of nation’s combatant ships to escort cargo ships to and from Ukrainian ports. Some, such as Adm. James Stavridis (USN, Ret.) have suggested exactly that. Like many simple answers, this one is entirely wrong.
Our navy, with NATO’s or a hastily-formed coalition’s support, could force its way through the Russian blockade to escort grain ships in and out of Ukraine’s ports. But that couldn’t be done without fighting Russian ships maintaining the blockade. As I have written consistently, we need to support Ukraine by sending them anything that shoots, but we should not go to war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf because we don’t have a vital national security interest in that nation.
Mr. Putin’s grain blackmail has and will continue to raise grain prices in the Western world and create shortages. In poorer countries, especially in Africa, this could result in hunger and famine. But this blackmail isn’t enough to relieve Russia of sanctions.
President Biden’s policy toward Russia and Ukraine is, at best, confused and as half-hearted as the EU’s. He’s far too willing to tell Russia what we won’t do to support Ukraine. His decision on sending Ukraine advanced missile systems has been reversed twice and maybe again.
What Mr. Biden should not do is follow the lead of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and The New York Times in telling Ukraine it should trade land — in Crimea and the Donbas region — for peace with Russia. If he adopts that strategy, it will be his 1938 Munich moment.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.
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