Russia’s New Export: Stolen Ukrainian Grain

Russia is allegedly selling stolen Ukrainian grain to African countries experiencing drought. This claim originated from multiple Ukrainian officials accusing Russia of stealing approximately 600,000 tonnes of grain from their territory. As a large contributor to the global grain market, Ukraine’s exports have been halted due to a Russian navy blockade along with its Black Sea ports. Other actors, including the US, have supported the allegations, and a UN task force is currently investigating the situation. While US intelligence has noted Russian cargo ships stocked with grain leaving ports near Ukraine, Russia has denied all allegations.

According to an interview given to Reuters, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey, Vasul Bodnar, expressed that Russia has been shipping the product from Crimea to various locations, including Turkey. He stated that Ukrainian leaders have made their “appeal for Turkey to help us and, upon the suggestion of the Turkish side, are launching criminal cases regarding those stealing and selling the grains.” On the other hand, while speaking to a BBC correspondent, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied Moscow’s obstruction of Ukraine’s wheat exports and rather that Ukraine must de-mine the waters off of its ports. The Russian government has attributed the food crisis that has emerged from this situation to Western sanctions. 

In applying the current grain dilemma to the larger conversation of global trade amid Russia’s military operations in Ukraine, it must be acknowledged that the war and subsequent sanctions have contributed to global price rises– including those of wheat. However, Ukraine’s largest obstacle to exporting goods is not natural trade fluctuations that arise from sanctions but instead due to the Russian blockade. This, in addition to the stockpiling of grain, represents one of the various mechanisms being used by Russia in their war. An unintended side effect of these means, however, is that many countries already experiencing food insecurity are now also facing shortages. In fact, billions of tonnes of grain are exported annually from Ukraine to African and Middle Eastern states, such as Libya, Eritrea, and Lebanon. Thus the allegedly stolen grain from Ukraine is not simply a product of Russia’s aggression but also has consequences for global trade, economy, and food security.

In order to understand this product as a significant aspect of the war in Ukraine, it is necessary to examine the grain market in more general terms. First, Ukraine contributes 9% of the world’s grain. Combined with Russia, these two nations make up nearly a third of global wheat supplies. As previously mentioned, the sudden halt in exports will have detrimental effects on food security in various countries; however, it will also cause future grain production issues for Ukraine. For instance, in an interview with BBC, Ukraine Grain Association chief Mykola Gorbachov warned that the next harvest will be negatively impacted if exports do not resume quickly. Namely, next year’s grain exports will be limited to 20 million tonnes, as opposed to the 45 million tonnes the country exported last year. Many leaders are hopeful that a deal can be made with Russia in order to allow Ukraine to resume trade and, in turn, mitigate the production and hunger issues. Although, Russia’s foreign policy actions make such a deal, and most others, unlikely. 

Overall, the weaponization of food, as evidenced by this case, is becoming a mechanism for one of the world’s superpowers to assert global control. This represents the stark reality that as climate change and exploitation increase as a threat to humanity, food, water, and energy will become just as powerful as missiles. In the meantime, however, Ukraine’s Western allies may have to extend their aid to include the unintended victims of Putin’s war, such as those who do not currently have access to a food staple.