12 October 2022

Putin wants to create a humanitarian crisis – so how can he be stopped?

By Oleksii Goncharenko

In the summer, I wrote that Vladimir Putin would inevitably violate Russia and Ukraine’s grain agreement. Unfortunately, he immediately proved me right, launching missile attacks on Odesa literally hours after signing the agreement. Behaviour this brazen might look strange to the civilised world, but it’s quite normal for the dictator in the Kremlin.

Although our air defences downed two of the four missiles launched on my city, much of Odesa’s port infrastructure was destroyed during the attack. The intention was quite clear – to violate the agreement and stop grain exports.

On 7 September, Putin said that he wanted to limit the grain agreement and intends to discuss this with the President of Turkey. He claims that Ukraine has not fulfilled the humanitarian side of the bargain because, supposedly, only two shiploads of grain – 60,000 tons in total – have been delivered by the World Food Programme. Needless to say, Putin is lying through his teeth. Indeed, a UN spokesman made clear that 30% of the grain leaving Ukraine had reached low or middle-income countries.

So what’s the real reason Russia is talking about stopping grain exports from Ukraine again?

It’s worth remembering just how important an export it is for my country. Ukraine supplies grain that feeds 400m people around the world, with the potential to feed a billion by 2030. After the Black Sea route was unblocked, our first cargo went to Lebanon, which gets 80% of its food supply from us.

The consequences of Ukraine not being able to export its food are grave. In the spring, the UN said that 44 million people were threatened with starvation, unsurprisingly as most developing countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia depend on Ukrainian grain.

It’s not just grain though; in January of this year, Ukraine became the second largest exporter of barley in the world behind the US, and we are also the fifth largest exporter of wheat and the fourth largest exporter of corn. We are also number one for sunflower oil exports, second for honey and fifth in the world for exports of chicken.

The grain blockade has to be seen in the context of Putin’s broader strategy. Not only is he waging a brutal, destructive conventional war on Ukraine, but he is trying to create an energy, migration and economic crisis in Europe to boot. He knows that potentially millions of hungry people seeking to reach Europe will destabilise a continent already reeling from high gas prices and inflation. In turn, he presumably hopes that domestic crises will weaken Western nations’ resolve to help Ukraine, and increase pressure to stop sending us the money and materiel we need to defeat Russia. Worse still, a renewed migration crisis would cost Ukraine time, during which Russia can re-arm and go on the offensive.

Nonetheless, Ukraine has managed to agree a deal to export its grain, and without shaking the bloodied hands of the Kremlins’ murderers. Naturally, Putin wasn’t best pleased and he is now clearly trying to renege on the deal. This time the Russian line is that Ukraine is only interested in helping developed countries, while ignoring starving people in Asia and Africa. As ever with Putin and his sorry excuse for a government, it’s a total fabrication.

As for Ukraine, we have to export as much grain as possible, both to save the world from starvation, and to replenish our own finances. That is why we direct exports to large European ports, so our ships can deliver their haul without risking time and cargo. From those ports, grain is transported to other countries – ones that don’t have Russian tanks on their land. In total, the world market has received more than 4 million tons over the last two months or so (half of the term for the agreement).

It’s hard to overstate the scale of the food crisis that Russia is engineering. According to calculations by Laura Wellesley from Chatham House, 30% of our harvest will not be gathered this year. According to our Ministry of Agrarian Policy, next year we risk losing 40% of our crop.

Russia’s goal is simple. They cannot beat us on the battlefield, so they want a humanitarian catastrophe on the borders of our country and on the European continent. But if Ukraine can survive, that catastrophe can be averted.

Putin’s desperation, meanwhile, is obvious. He thought he could conquer the whole country quickly – he failed. He wanted to break our spirit – he failed. Our people and our peerless armed forces put him in his place. Now, we have accumulated strength, timed our counter-offensive expertly and are kicking the invaders out of the Kharkiv region, leaving Russian soldiers and their tanks trailing in our wake. That Putin is talking about stopping exports and blockading Odesa is a clear sign of that desperation, as was his announcement of a ‘partial’ mobilisation in Russia.

What now? Putin controls the Black Sea in which Odesa remains the most important port. My home city is responsible for 5% of the world’s grain exports and a blockade risks a crisis we have tried so hard to avoid. Without grain and other food exports, the security of the wider world is under threat. Given that we don’t have a fleet of our own, and our armed forces can’t simply clear the sea, it seems likely Putin will try to block exports from Odesa.

There are three things to do to avoid that grim eventuality:

  1. The UN should recognise Odesa as a city whose existence is important for the whole world.
  2. Large maritime powers must enter the city with their maritime forces. This could be a coalition of states or ships of the US and the United Kingdom.
  3. These powers must become guarantors of vital Ukrainian food exports. Russia understands only force. The materiel and technology of the Russian fleet is very low, so we shouldn’t have to worry about an attack on the Allied warships.

Time is of the essence. The world must act immediately, before Putin steps up his ‘conflict resolution’ efforts and plunges us into yet more crisis.

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Oleksii Goncharenko is MP for Odesa.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.