Monday, 07 August 2023 05:32

Putin’s Many Paradoxes & Russia’s Weaponisation of Food

UN inspectors of the Joint Coordination Centre go to inspect a grain shipment aboard the merchant vessel LADY SPERANZA under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Istanbul, 17 February 2023. Credit: UN/Duncan Moore


BIRMINGHAM, UK, Aug 04 (IPS) — Russia’s special military or colonization operation in Ukraine continues to surprise. These surprises come from a decided absence of strategic thinking by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.



“Russia is now deliberately targeting Ukraine’s grain storage and export infrastructure… There is a form of madness here as Putin has decided to weaponise food and perhaps his plan is to create a global food crisis.”


Fundamentally, a paradox sits behind Putin’s war with Ukraine. This paradox reflects the tension between Putin’s desire to demonstrate that Russia is still a major power on the world stage and actions that continue to undermine Russia’s economy and international standing. Central to this tension are differences between Russia and Ukraine regarding the value of human life. A recent battlefield incident highlights this difference.


Serhiy had been wounded and separated from his Ukrainian unit. He was spotted by a Ukrainian drone operator who reacted rapidly to save him. The drone operator from the 15th National Guard stated that they did not want to leave Serhiy as “every life is important to us”.


Putin and the Kremlin place no value on life. Whilst Serhiy was been rescued a Russian priest from the orthodox church proclaimed on Russian state television that Russian forces “came to war not to kill but to die” as a form of sacrifice.


This type of statement reflects the value placed by the Russian establishment on the life of Russian citizens. This then reflects Putin’s paradox as his war with Ukraine has made matters much worse for nearly all Russian citizens. Putin’s decision to leave the UN-brokered grain export arrangement is another indicator of the value that the Kremlin places on human life. This is another paradoxical decision.


On the one hand, Russia is now deliberately targeting Ukraine’s grain storage and export infrastructure. This is civilian infrastructure, and moreover it is infrastructure that plays a critical role in world food markets and in feeding some of the most vulnerable people living on this planet.


There is a form of madness here as Putin has decided to weaponise food and perhaps his plan is to create a global food crisis. On Wednesday 2 August, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that “Moscow is waging a battle for a global catastrophe. In their madness, they need world food markets to collapse, they need a price crisis, they need disruptions in supplies”. On the other hand, it is important to explore which countries benefited the most from the Black Sea grain deal. The answer is perhaps surprising – China. Ukraine exported 7.9 million tonnes of grain or just under a quarter of the grain involved in the Black Sea initiative to China.


Putin’s decision to prevent grain from being exported from Ukraine to China raises some interesting questions regarding the special relationship that is supposed to exist between these countries. Putin’s war with Ukraine has led to Russia’s on-going isolation from international affairs. Putin is trying to address this isolation by trying to make friends. This process includes his intention that Russia “will be ready to provide Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea with 25-50,000 tonnes of free grain each in the next three to four months”.


There is a problem here in that Putin’s offer of between 150,000 and 300,000 tonnes of grain does not compensate for the 750,000 tonnes of Ukrainian grain that was purchased by the World Food Programme (WFP) and shipped immediately to countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan.


The WFP is the largest humanitarian organization in the world and importantly this is not controlled by a single nation but was established by the United Nations. There are rather too many Putin paradoxes. This includes his proclamation regarding the end of “neo-colonialism” and the emergence of a multi-polar global order.


There is the obvious tension here in that Putin states that he is against the application of power and influence to subjugate other countries, but then offers ‘free food’ to some countries and yet free food always comes with strings attached.


Evidently, Putin favours colonialism but also practices neo-colonialism. Putin’s rhetoric regarding his vision of a new multipolar world must be treated with caution. Putin’s imaginary new world has much in common with George Orwell’s novel ‘Animal Farm’ in that all nations would be equal, but Russia would be more equal than others.


A truly multi-polar world would be one in which initiatives led by organisations like the UN take priority over any initiatives led by any one country. It is time to shift away from one nation trying to dominate global affairs to a world in which effective supranational organisations try to ensure that all living on planet earth are treated equably.


Of course, this is a utopian vision. The realty will be a continued struggle between competing politicians/nations, and this will result in negative outcomes for all.


John R. Bryson is Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography — University of Birmingham


The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions, and its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers and teachers and more than 8,000 international students from over 150 countries.


IPS UN Bureau