And how it is is that Vladimir Putin, not content with torturing and laying siege to Ukraine, is now trying to starve the whole world into submitting to his will. Guterres says that the Ukraine conflict, combined with the climate crisis and the post-pandemic disruptions, “threatens to tip tens of millions of people over the edge into food insecurity followed by malnutrition, mass hunger and famine”.
So suddenly this cruel war isn’t just about the freedom of Ukraine, the security of Europe and the future of Nato. It’s about famine – global famine. The stakes are getting much, much bigger.
Though Putin and his generals hardly planned it like this, because they haven’t got the imagination to do so, they have accidentally succeeded in holding the world to ransom. Ukraine, as we all now know, is the breadbasket of the world, the major supplier of wheat and cooking oil to much of Africa and the Middle East.
Now vast quantities of grain and sunflower oil are being prevented from leaving Ukraine because of the war and the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Millions of tonnes of grain are awaiting export to feed the poor of the world, and Putin is quite content to let it rot, having sent a substantial consignment back to Russia.
Because of sanctions, the world can’t buy whatever Russia exports, and the spikes in oil, gas and fertiliser costs caused by the conflict have prevented other major grain producers such as Brazil from expanding production. Countries like India, Nigeria and South Africa are banning exports of foodstuffs. Saudi Arabia and other major oil powers are reluctant to make up for the loss of Russian oil on world markets. The world cannot feed itself in such circumstances. The west suffers from cost of living crises and hardships; but nations such as Egypt and Libya face far worse.
In the west, there is a growing realisation that the economic crisis is going to intensify. Andrew Bailey, the much-maligned governor of the Bank of England, called the situation “apocalyptic”, in the context of the four horsemen of the apocalypse – Death, War, Conquest and Famine. He’s been attacked for his alarmist language, but, given the imminent prospect of starvation and instability, his language was highly appropriate.
Janet Yellen, the US treasury secretary, warns: “Russia’s war against Ukraine has exacerbated the issue of food security for people around the world, particularly in emerging and developing countries.” She added that there was a “very real risk” that rising global market prices of food and fertiliser will “result in more people going hungry, further exacerbate price pressures and harm government fiscal and external positions”.
Such similar but smaller-scale shortages of food led to the Arab spring a decade ago, and all that followed it, not least the rise of Isis and the destruction of Syria. The crisis in Ukraine, quite without the military conflict spilling over its borders, is already causing global convulsions. The food riots erupting from Sri Lanka to Lebanon to Peru are just the beginning of the dislocations.
So the world once again has a choice. It can allow Russia to strangle Ukraine and starve the poor of Africa and the Middle East; or it can break the Russian embargo in the Black Sea. That would require a more rapid Ukrainian victory than seems likely; or else the west, supported by a much broader global coalition of the willing, opening up a new front with Russia, and a much more dangerously direct sort of naval confrontation than simply supplying armaments and intelligence to the Ukrainian army and air force.
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It would need a vast armada of western and allied vessels to secure Ukraine’s remaining port access and the sea routes out towards the Middle East, Africa and beyond.
This time round, nations that were equivocal or neutral about Russia, such as Turkey (the other major power in the Black Sea), South Africa and India, will have to be more supportive of a threat of force to prevent widespread mass hunger and malnutrition, with all the unpredictable consequences they usually bring.
China, too, cannot look with any calm on the prospect of its “Belt and Road” allies being thrown into chaos because of food riots and the overthrow of governments in populous developing countries. China, above all other nations, needs healthy exports in a stable world to maintain its prosperity. Besides, the rising price of grain will eventually affect the cost of rice.
Guterres has been at the core of efforts to send food and financial aid to countries at risk of biblical famines, but he is clear that that is not going to be sustainable. “There is enough food in our world now if we act together. But unless we solve this problem today, we face the spectre of global food shortage in the coming months. Let’s be clear: there is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertiliser produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets – despite the war.”
The problem, though, is that the war is not going to end just because we’d all like it to, and it cannot end before Putin is defeated, and his grip on Ukraine’s ports and sea lanes released.
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