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Terror by Famine Is a Common Russian Weapon

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Photo: Moscow has not given up on using food and its supply routes to exert pressure on the world. Source: Collage The Gaze/Leonid Lukashenko.
Photo: Moscow has not given up on using food and its supply routes to exert pressure on the world. Source: Collage The Gaze/Leonid Lukashenko.

It was by starvation that Red Russia killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1932-33 Holodomor. The famine organized by Moscow changed the history of Ukraine forever. It was genocide. In this way, Russia broke down the resistance of Ukrainians to the communist regime, intimidated them, and facilitated the Russification of the Ukrainians whose society and worldview had been forcibly deformed. The threat of famine became an effective mechanism of influence and blackmail. Now, Moscow again uses the threat of famine to put pressure on the world.

We can now confidently say that the seizure of Ukrainian food stocks and the occupation of Ukrainian agricultural areas were highly important factors in Russia's planning of a full-scale aggression against Ukraine. Ukraine is one of the largest agricultural producers in the world (over 45 million tons of grain per year). 

The goal of Russia's war against Ukraine was to destroy the Ukrainian state or at least capture and annex most of its territory. Ukrainian lands have a developed agricultural sector. Ukraine also has ports in the South on the Black Sea coast used to export agricultural products, primarily grain. Russia included the Ukrainian food resource in the calculation of the Russian economy, including in remote regions of Russia. 

The Russians established targeted control over large agricultural enterprises and grain elevators from the first days of the occupation, especially in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. A few months after the war began, Russian regional officials started informing their population that food was coming from the "new regions." They employed akin rhetoric even before Russia announced the "accession" of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions to Russia after a bogus referendum in September 2022. 

Moreover, two months before the invasion, the companies cooperating with the Russian Ministry of Defense began purchasing grain transportation trucks and three new 170-meter dry bulk carriers in December. Overall, the Russians were exporting up to 12,000 tons of grain daily from the occupied territories. In less than two years of the occupation in the South and East, the Russians have exported 15 million tons of wheat, sunflower, and corn

In the occupied territories, Russians are forcing Ukrainian farmers to register under Russian law. If they don't comply, the Russians confiscate their land and farms. Farmers, in turn, can register their farms and land only if they have a Russian passport. Accordingly, the Russian Federation is also carrying out forced passportization.

Ukrainian food has become a source of pride for the Kremlin. In particular, the Russian leadership uses famous Melitopol cherries at international events to symbolize the "new regions." It is also clear that Russia's plans included utilizing Ukrainian agricultural resources to strengthen its position as a food exporter globally. The trophy grain and land were supposed to bring a steady income to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin's Insidious Plan

Given that the plans for the conquest of Ukraine, nurtured by Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his entourage, did not materialize, the Kremlin had to make adjustments. Russia could only use the soils and grain reserves under its control in the occupied territories. Ukraine has retained most of its food reserves and agricultural production. Ukraine also retained control of the main ports (Odesa and those close to it) used for grain exports. Initially, the Russians had plans for a landing operation in Odesa, but effective resistance from Ukrainians meant the Black Sea Fleet did not dare to undertake the risky mission. Then, the Russians, having a significant advantage at sea, established a blockade of the Black Sea coast. The goal was to stop the export of Ukrainian food.

Moscow knew what it was doing. A simple calculation showed that if a small share of Ukrainian grain did not reach the world market, it would lead to the threat of famine in many countries in the Global South, causing concern in the world. Moscow used the threat of hunger to exert pressure, demanding permission to trade in Russian-made nitrate fertilizers and forcing Ukraine to open the Togliatti (Russia) - Odesa ammonia pipeline. There, ammonia needed for fertilizer production would be loaded onto tankers for further sale on world markets.

Moscow also demanded that the world increase purchases of Russian grain. However, the military situation at sea was also changing. On July 7, 2022, the Ukrainian Defense Forces liberated Zmiinyi Island from the Russian occupiers, which the Russians had seized at the beginning of the war and with which they could control the western part of the Black Sea. The Russians had to take this factor into account. Against this background, after almost three months of negotiations, the Black Sea Grain Initiative was launched on July 22, 2022. The United Nations and Turkey signed two separate agreements with Ukraine and Russia to create a Grain Corridor, a safe route from Odesa and its nearby ports for ships carrying Ukrainian food. As part of the agreement, a Joint Coordination Center was established to monitor the movement of ships through the corridor and to check them for unauthorized military cargo. 

Russia predictably sabotaged the work of the Joint Coordination Center. After the first four months of the agreement expired, the Russians demanded an increase in Russian grain exports. Throughout the "grain corridor," Russia launched missiles and Shahed UAVs at Odesa and the port infrastructure in particular. Eventually, Russia resorted to outright sabotage. In the last months of the "corridor" operation, the Russian part of the JCC did not check ships or check them too slowly. A queue of ships formed. The calculation was clear. To force the world and Ukraine to work on Russian terms. On July 17, Russia announced its withdrawal from the Grain Agreement. At the same time, the Russian Federation has been accusing Ukraine and the West of organizing famine in several countries, although it was its actions, primarily aggression against Ukraine, that led to instability in food supplies.

Grain from Ukraine

However, the situation has changed dramatically again. Ukraine's defense forces, through the active and successful use of maritime drones and long-range missiles, have made any actions of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the western part of the sea extremely dangerous. Moreover, they turned the "main base of the Black Sea Fleet", the temporarily occupied Sevastopol, into an extremely dangerous place, forcing the Russians to relocate the main part of the fleet to the North Caucasus.

Ukraine, on the other hand, said that its Navy guarantees security for grain ships moving from Odesa ports. The route launched in early September. By the end of November 2023, about 160 vessels had transported 6.2 million tons of Ukrainian grain from Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdenne. On November 26, on the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, the genocide of the Ukrainian people, Ukraine, and its partners launched the humanitarian food program Grain from Ukraine. Under the program, Ukraine sends part of its wheat to African countries suffering from hunger. Part of this grain is purchased by the states participating in the project.

The Legacy of the KGB

Do not think that this is the end of the story. Creating a serious problem or even a deadly danger for the target of influence to help the target to overcome it, thus creating dependence, is one of the main methods of the Russian special services inherited from the KGB. The Chekists, who are now in power in the Russian Federation, also use it against entire countries. Hence, by cutting off the supply of Ukrainian food through the main route, the Black Sea, the Kremlin created a problem. It then proposed a solution. Russia will provide a certain amount of grain and fertilizers free of charge to countries in need. In return, it has to freely trade the stolen grain, and its Rosselkhozbank has to regain access to the SWIFT system. These are unacceptable conditions on the part of Russia. But Russia is not giving up. 

In its plan, the Kremlin accounted for the traditionally powerful anti-Western sentiment in countries suffering from hunger. In general, Moscow has traditionally parasitized on the image of an anti-Western and anti-colonial force, to which all those who have been offended by the West can turn. This image is based on the achievements of the USSR, which, as a communist country, "led the fight against the oppressors of Africa, Asia, and Latin America." The fact that the Russian Federation itself is an openly colonial country that oppresses and assimilates the peoples it controls, driving them into a war that is alien to them, does not play a role. Although, lately, problems have arisen here as well. 

For example, at the African summit in Moscow in July, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa unexpectedly called on Putin to renew the grain deal and asked for the Black Sea to be opened for trade. Ramaphosa said that Africa does not need gifts in the form of small amounts of free grain from Russia. Again, the Kremlin is concerned about the UN voting, where Africa has stopped voting unanimously in favor of the Russian position on the war in Ukraine. Therefore, new methods are being used.

The emphasis is on the information sphere. The Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States Affairs, Compatriots Living Abroad, and International Humanitarian Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo), Russia's leading institution for shaping the positive image of Russia in the world, is currently conducting a major campaign in the Global South, the former USSR, and the Soviet bloc. Its result should be the formation in all these countries of the perception of the Russian Federation as a country that ensures the world's food security, has serious achievements in this area, and provides extensive assistance to countries in need. 

By the end of the year, 46.6 million rubles will be spent on articles and advertising in the foreign press. In addition, the campaign will be carried out through YouTube, the Google Discovery recommendation system, and the Google search engine. The approach is differentiated. The Rossotrudnichestvo contractor is to publish ads for the "near abroad" on Telegram and VKontakte. A press tour is also planned for 30 media representatives from the "near abroad", the Middle East and Africa. The program of the trip will include speeches by competent representatives of Russia, a screening of a film about the actions of the aggressor country in the alleged area of food security, and an excursion to a food processing enterprise. In general, it is clear that this issue of food security is perceived as extremely important in the Kremlin: Since 2019, Rossotrudnichestvo has not spent so much money on information campaigns that would be conducted in such a short time. Among the countries where the ads will be distributed are Bulgaria, a NATO member, and even Israel. 

***

Moscow has not given up on using food and its supply routes to exert pressure on the world. Control over food production on a global scale, established after the attack on Ukraine, has been and remains one of the goals of Russia's war against Ukraine. The cynical campaign to portray Russia as a "savior" from the famine in the Global South and a "reliable guardian of food security" is evidence that the Kremlin will continue to try to cut off food supplies from Ukraine, blaming Kyiv and the West, and undermining the food security of countries in the Global South that are dependent on food imports.

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