In the eighteenth month of his collapsing war effort in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin is reaching two critical inflection points. One is on his domestic home front where in Yevgeny Prigozhin’s uprising has left him far weaker than initially imagined especially in FSB and GRU circles. The other on the battlefield wherein Ukraine is gaining the initiative and slowly but methodically pressing forward in its summer counteroffensive along the 600-mile front.
Winning the war no longer appears to be Putin’s top priority. His own personal survival and that of his regime are now paramount to him.
In search of that survival, much as Putin last fall attempted to weaponize winter in search of a decisive victory over Kyiv, the Kremlin has now launched a war against food with Odesa, Ukraine being its ground zero. In terms of the former, Putin was willing to punish all of Europe in search of a win. Now, in respect to the latter, he is willing to bring famine among some of the poorest countries in the world – many in Africa – to survive.
The Kyiv Post recently reported: “Pre-war, Ukraine was one of the world’s largest grain exporters, supplying about 10 percent of the trade in wheat, about 15 percent of the corn market, and more than 40 percent of the sunflower oil market. Ukrainian farms fed 400 million people worldwide, according to the UN World Food Program.”
According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the Black Sea Initiative (BSI) plays an “indispensable role” in global food security. In the past year, more than “32 million tons of food commodities have been exported from three Ukrainian Black Sea ports to 45 countries across three continents.”
The BSI “allowed the World Food Programme (WFP) to transport more than 725,000 tons of wheat to help people in need in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Ukraine supplied more than half of WFP’s wheat grain in 2022, as was the case in 2021.
Seeking leverage, any type of leverage against Ukraine and its NATO allies – and his growing domestic opposition – Putin withdrew from the United Nations-brokered Black Sea Initiative they signed on July 22nd, 2022.
Yet another Russian signature not worth the paper it was signed on.
Let’s call it what it is: Russia’s War on Grain.
Putin has already demonstrated his willingness to target, maim, and kill innocent civilians with ballistic missiles, drone strikes, and artillery, now he has made a deliberate decision to starve civilians throughout the world who derive any benefit from Ukrainian grain. These actions alone further justify the International Criminal Court’s warrant for his arrest as a war criminal for his crimes being perpetrated not just in Ukraine, but now on a truly global scale.
On July 19th, Russia’s Ministry for Defense announced ships sailing on the Black Sea would “be considered potential carriers of military cargo,” and that “flag countries of vessels sailing to Ukraine will be considered as on Kyiv’s side.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov added that, “vessels traveling through the Black Sea without its consent would be in danger.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin added, “Russia will inspect all ships sailing in the Black Sea to make sure they don't carry military cargo … There is no longer a humanitarian corridor for commercial vessels in the Black Sea.”
A naval exercise conducted on July 21st demonstrated Russian capability to act on its threat. The exercise involved a missile boat from its Black Sea Fleet, which “fired anti-ship cruise missiles at the target ship … [which was] destroyed as a result of a missile strike.”
Then, to initiate Putin’s weaponization of food, Russia struck farm storage buildings in the Odesa region with cruise missiles on July 21st. According to the regional Governor, Oleh Kiper, “the attacks injured two, damaged equipment and destroyed 100 metric tons of peas and 20 metric tons of barley. The Black Sea port region has now suffered four straight days of bombardment, with Russian cruise missiles and drones striking port and grain facilities critical to the export of wheat.
But it is not stopping there.
The Washington Post reported on July 20ththat the White House warned: “Russia’s military has laid sea mines around Ukrainian ports and is preparing for possible attacks on civilian shipping vessels in the Black Sea.”
NSC spokesman Kirby added that “the United States was releasing this information strategically to avoid false flag operations by Russia.”
The response from the U.S., the European Union, NATO, and the United Nations has been mostly silence. This inaction only emboldens a weakened Russia.
Why is power being ceded to Putin? Especially given the looming cost – death, malnutrition and starvation – on truly a global scale?
Thus far, the only push back has come from Ukraine’s Defense Ministry which announced on July 20 that all vessels on the Black Sea heading toward Russian or Russia-occupied ports would be treated as ones carrying military cargo “with all associated risks" starting from July 21.
Turkey, the gatekeeper of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits by virtue of the Montreux Convention of 1936, has denied Ukraine’s request to provide Naval escorts to the Ukrainian ships.
And by declaring the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a “war” on February 27th, 2022, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in essence, restricted NATO and the U.N. in their ability to provide naval escorts to Ukrainian shipping in the Black Sea.
Legally, NATO’s hands are tied by the convention.
The same holds true for a U.N. proposal by Guterres to put together a maritime military escort for cargo ships transporting grain from Ukraine's Black Sea ports. NATO cannot reposition their ships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea to provide escorts.
Only ships that are home based in Black Sea ports are permitted passage through the straits. Furthermore, Turkey cannot block Russian warships based in the Black Sea from returning to their registered bases. Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania are the only NATO partners with access to the Black Sea.
In the absence of legal Western naval solutions, NATO must consider alternatives. For instance, NATO airpower could be used to escort food-carrying cargo ships entering and exiting the Turkish straits from and to Ukrainian Black Sea Ports.
The West cannot allow food to be weaponized. Putin must be stopped. As we write this, Odesa is again under Russian missile attack in the dead of night and its grain storage and port facilities are yet again burning – as is a good portion of Africa’s future food supply. Odesa’s historic Transfiguration Orthodox Church was also targeted and reported “partially destroyed.”
NATO can longer wait and in the short term must do everything in its collective power to protect grain shipments to and from Ukraine in the Black Sea.
Long term, Moscow can no longer be allowed to dominate Ukrainian sea ports or the Black Sea from the Crimean Peninsula. To accomplish that, Washington and Brussels must provide Kyiv with every weapon system and munitions necessary to defeat and evict Putin’s land, sea and naval forces in Crimea.
In the face of famine – especially in Africa – it is time for NATO to act. Even if that means U.S. flagged ships and planes escorting grain shipments in the Black Sea.
Copyright 2023. Jonathan E. Sweet and Mark C. Toth. All rights reserved.
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