The scale of the current global hunger and malnutrition crisis is enormous. According to the World Food Program (WFP), more than 345 million people face high levels of food insecurity in 2023. That’s more than double the number in 2020. This constitutes a staggering rise of 200 million people compared to pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels. Wars, conflicts, economic shocks, climate extremes and soaring fertilizer prices are creating the “perfect storm”. As many as 783 million people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from.

Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine is one of the reasons for the unprecedented global food crisis.

According to the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), Russian aggression “is not only disrupting global markets for wheat, maize [corn], barley, and vegetable oils – Ukraine’s main agricultural exports – but has also driven up prices for nutritious foods produced elsewhere and slowed the provision of lifesaving assistance for the most acute forms of malnutrition. As a result, malnutrition has worsened for millions worldwide.”

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Despite – or most likely because of – the dramatic impact, Russia decided to terminate the Black Sea Grain Initiative on 17 July. Understandably, international organizations reacted with great dismay.

The Black Sea Initiative has been a lifeline to millions during an unprecedented global hunger crisis. Yet today, Russia chose to terminate it. Struggling families around the world do not deserve to be collateral victims of this war. We must find a way forward.”

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Cindy McCain, head of the World Food Program

The announcement came five days after what could have been a historic NATO summit. The Alliance had an opportunity to rectify a 15-year-old mistake. The 2008 Bucharest summit blocked the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance, a decision that left the two countries unprotected in a “grey zone” and led to the largest war in Europe since World War II. The Vilnius summit could have crushed Russia’s ambitions and restored Peace in Europe. Instead, it ended up – once again – emboldening an aggressive, imperialistic autocracy.

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A short-sighted NATO repeated the mistake from 2008 out of fear of Russia.

It chose to uphold a strategy that has allowed Russia to turn Peace into Conflict and War. It chose appeasement out of fear of escalation. It chose many more years of further devastation, destruction, horror, death and suffering for Ukraine. It chose to start mitigating critical vulnerabilities – 9.5 years after the war started – as Ukraine continues to both fight for its existence and protect Europe. It chose a protracted war that NATO is ill-prepared to sustain. The Alliance chose to accept the consequential “tsunami of ripple effects” from the war that has already led to an unprecedented surge in protests over the increased costs of living and the rise of far-right parties across Europe.

The “choosing” are some of the fallouts of the Alliance's decision to not invite Ukraine to become a NATO member while the war is ongoing.

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NATO, basically, chose to be deterred instead of establishing deterrence. It failed to create incentives for Russia to stop its horrific war in Ukraine and de-escalate the broader confrontation with the West.

The Alliance not only failed to invite Ukraine to become a NATO member (or commit to a timeline) at the Vilnius summit but also upheld President Putin’s “veto right.” It made it abundantly clear that Ukraine will not become a member until the war is over, indirectly – and possibly unintentionally – encouraging Russia to uphold the war indefinitely. More crucially and in the context of the Black Sea Grain initiative, NATO stressed that it does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia.

Russia decided to terminate the Black Sea Grain Initiative knowing that it is unlikely to trigger a military response. The Alliance has long demonstrated a lack of appetite to confront Russia or enforce the Freedom of Navigation. The summit reaffirmed NATO’s deep-rooted fear.

Russia is an aggressor that believes it can operate with impunity

Russia expects the international community to make statements of concern and condemnation but do nothing. Again.

Let’s put the grain agreement into a proper context.

Ukraine has never negotiated a grain agreement with Russia. The “Initiative on the Safe Transportation of Grain and Foodstuffs from Ukrainian Ports” consists of two separate documents: one memorandum between Ukraine, Turkey and the UN, and another between the UN, Turkey and Russia.

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The agreement was not made in good faith. It was an arrangement made necessary because of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked full-scale war. It was required because of its relentless attacks on civilian infrastructure, including Ukraine’s commercial ports. It became crucial due to Russian blackmail and its refusal to guarantee the safety of commercial shipping.

The agreement became a necessity because of Russian attacks on commercial vessels, attacks against civilian infrastructure (including commercial ports) and restrictions of Freedom of Navigation in the Black Sea in breach of international law, and the consequential global consequences.

The termination of the Black Sea Grain Initiative is another part of Russia’s unremitting escalation of the broader confrontation with the West. It includes cyber, economic, energy, and political warfare. It is suspected of cutting underwater cables (demonstrating its ability to cut the transatlantic internet cables crucial to the Western financial system). It stands accused of liquidations and terror attacks on foreign soil.

Russia has not least, weaponized food security. In sum, the “tsunami of ripple effects” from the war has triggered an increase in costs of living globally, and the consequential protests, demonstrations, riots, and transformation of the political landscape.

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Russia’s unilateral Black Sea blockade violates freedom of navigation, threatens global food supplies, and is costing Ukraine and the West billions. It is time to end it. By any reasonable definition of the word, Russia’s Black Sea blockade of maritime trade with Ukraine equates to piracy, or at least the threat of it. The international community’s response has been dismal. By accepting Russia’s implicit threats to sink foreign-flagged merchant vessels in international waters, we have allowed the Kremlin to successfully blackmail the world.”

Kurt Volker, former US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations and US Ambassador to NATO

Russia has weaponized food to force the international community to lift sanctions imposed against it in response to its war of aggression against Ukraine, for its illegal annexation of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions, and the Crimea Peninsula; its forced deportation of children; and its horrendous war crimes.

Instead of withdrawing its forces and ending its war of aggression to help persuade the international community to lift the sanctions, it has decided to escalate and blackmail the world.

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Less than a week has passed since the NATO summit ended.

On day one after the summit, Russia escalated and reiterated its threats against the West. President Putin highlights that a future Ukrainian NATO membership poses a threat to Russia. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov said that Russia will consider the transfer of F-16 to Ukraine as a nuclear threat. Both statements targeted the US and Europe’s fear of escalation.

On day five, it chose to deny Freedom of Navigation in the Black Sea as a part of its economic warfare. It withdrew its guarantee against attacking civilian shipping.

On day six, Russia launched a massive missile and UAV attack against Odesa in violation of the spirit of the initiative. Under the agreement, Russia had promised to “not undertake any attacks against merchant vessels and other civilian vessels and port facilities engaged in this Initiative.”

All the above is an indication that Russia is an aggressor that believes it can operate with impunity.

The West has so far paid far too little attention to the maritime domain. As Russia holds the world ransom, it is time for a Western coalition willing to re-establish Freedom of Navigation in the Black Sea.

Commercial shipping must be protected to ensure that Ukrainian wheat, maize [corn], barley, and vegetable oils continue to reach the global market.

It is crucial to both alleviate global famine as well as ensure the survival of Ukraine.

Civil shipping will not return to the Black Sea before its security is guaranteed. Lacking Russian guarantees, the West must step in.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

Hans Petter Midttun, Independent Analyst, Hybrid Warfare, Non-resident Fellow at the Centre for Defence Strategies, board member Ukrainian Institute for Security and Law of the Sea, former Defence Attaché of Norway to Ukraine, and Officer (Ret.) of the Norwegian Armed Forces.

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