The United States has accused Russia of holding the world’s food supply hostage amid growing fears of famine in developing countries, as a former Russian president warned that the Kremlin would not release vital grain shipments without an end to western sanctions.
Speaking at a UN security council meeting on Thursday, US secretary of state Antony Blinken demanded that Russia lift its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and enable the flow of food and fertiliser around the world.
“The Russian government seems to think that using food as a weapon will help accomplish what its invasion has not – to break the spirit of the Ukrainian people,” he said at the meeting called by the Biden administration.
“The food supply for millions of Ukrainians and millions more around the world has quite literally been held hostage by the Russian military,” he added.
Blinken called on Russia to “stop threatening to withhold food and fertiliser exports from countries that criticise your war of aggression.”
Russia and Ukraine produce 30% of the global wheat supply and 69% of the world’s sunflower oil.
Earlier on Thursday, Dmitry Medvedev, a former president of Russia who is now senior security official, warned that Russia would not continue food supplies unless the west eased its sanctions on the Kremlin.
After pleas from western government and the United Nations to Moscow to allow the flow of food to avert possible famine in some countries, Medvedev said on Thursday that Russia was ready to do so but expected “assistance from trading partners, including on international platforms” in return.
“Otherwise, there’s no logic: on the one hand, insane sanctions are being imposed against us, on the other hand, they are demanding food supplies,” Medvedev said on the messaging app Telegram. “Things don’t work like that, we’re not idiots.”
“Countries importing our wheat and other food products will have a very difficult time without supplies from Russia. And on European and other fields, without our fertilisers, only juicy weeds will grow,” added Medvedev, who served as president between 2008 and 2012 but is now deputy chairman of Russia’s security council.
“We have every opportunity to ensure that other countries have food, and food crises do not happen. Just don’t interfere with our work.”
Ertharin Cousin, chief executive and founder of Food Systems for the Future, and a co-author of a report on the issue with Boston Consulting Group, said the crisis could have ramifications across the world. “While this crisis will impact all of us around the world in significant ways, low-income economies risk devastation and potential unrest,” she said. “We’re not just talking about the poorest of the poor, who are already suffering from hunger. We’re also talking about people who could recently afford a loaf of bread for their families and who now will be unable to do so.”
The demand to have sanctions on the Russian economy lifted could intensify western efforts to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to be able to challenge Russia’s naval blockade. Ukraine has already sunk Russia’s flagship battle cruiser Moskva but its military would need more sophisticated missiles in order to force the Russian Black Sea fleet to back off.
According to a report by Reuters, the White House is working on such a plan. Three US officials and two congressional sources said two types of powerful anti-ship missiles were in active consideration for either direct shipment to Ukraine, or via transfer from a European ally that has the missiles, Reuters reported on Thursday.
The plans are tempered by concerns that supplying Ukraine with the latest anti-ship weaponry could intensify the conflict. Current and former US officials and congressional sources have also cited roadblocks to sending longer range, more powerful weapons to Ukraine that include lengthy training requirements, difficulties maintaining equipment, or concerns weaponry could be captured by Russian forces.
Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine and a barrage of unprecedented international sanctions on Russia have disrupted supplies of fertiliser, wheat and other commodities from both countries, pushing up prices for food and fuel, especially in developing nations.
Serhii Dvornyk, a member of Ukraine’s mission to the UN, backed Blinken’s claim and called on Russia to stop “stealing” Ukrainian grain and unblock the ports, noting that 400 million people around the world depended on grain from Ukraine.
The country’s grain exports fell from 5m tons a month before Russia’s February invasion to 200,000 tons in March and about 1.1m tons in April, he added.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, countered by saying his country was being blamed for all of the world’s woes.
He said the world had long suffered from a food crisis caused by an inflationary spiral stemming from rising costs of insurance, logistical snarls, and speculation on western markets.
He argued that Ukraine’s ports are blocked by Ukraine itself, which, he said, had placed mines along the Black Sea coast.