Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

The great grain war

Russian aggression is endangering global food supplies

Dictators tend to have busy schedules — shoring up allies, distributing medals, dispatching rivals. Hitler was good at this. So was Stalin. Last week Vladimir Putin seems to have done all three. After undertaking a non-visit to South Africa, he decorated some cronies and appears to have administered a Prigozhectomy. His assurances to those in Johannesburg were ones of undying support against the West. To his comrades in Russia, the message was, presumably, never fly business class again. Economy is safer.

It was back in 2001, that Roopa Purushothaman, an economist with Goldman Sachs, developed the mnemonic BRIC to highlight the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, which she thought might dominate global finance by 2050. Her chairman, Jim O’Neill, championed the descriptor in his firm’s publication Building Better Global Economic BRICs, and the acronym stuck. Soon it turned into reality, as foreign ministers of the four BRIC states met subsequently in New York City in 2006, in the margins of a UN General Assembly. Formal diplomatic gatherings followed in Yekaterinburg, Russia, three years later. In 2010 a fifth state joined, and the organisation became BRICS, with the “S” standing for South Africa. Together they account for 40 per cent of the world’s population and a quarter of the global economy.

Russia has been pouring money into the African continent

The five nations envisaged being able to rival the G7 states in the future. They established the New Development Bank (known as the BRICS Bank) and saw themselves as an alternative to global bodies dominated by the West. Behind the scenes, Russia’s agenda has always been using the BRICS grouping as an economic launchpad for a re-run of the old Soviet bloc. Last February, Russia and China held joint naval manoeuvres with South Africa in the Indian Ocean. Given the proximity of global shipping lanes, the 10-day Exercise Mosi, meaning “smoke”, caused great alarm in the West. It was seen as South Africa endorsing the Ukraine invasion.

Russia has been pouring money into the continent, and it seems that Moscow has now got its way. In a major upheaval of world economic alignments, at last week’s Johannesburg summit (the one that Vladimir Putin missed) it was announced that the BRICS bloc would expand. Argentina will join, as will Iran. The also-trumpeted arrival of Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE in January 2024 will stretch the new 11-letter acronym beyond any reasonable breaking point. SEERABICIUS, anyone? India was hostile to any BRICS expansion, fearing a rift with the United States. China, too, was wary. Now Bolivia and Algeria have applied to join.

Using his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Kremlin spokesman Dimitry Peskov, the Russian leader’s information operation disparaging the West is running at full tilt in Africa. So, too, is China’s. Due to the defunding campaign, the BBC may be unpopular in the United Kingdom, but its foreign language news services are still prized around the rest of the world for their objectivity. It would be strategically negligent to surrender this proven tool of soft power to Radio Sputnik from Moscow. More generally, the West’s response to the lies and disinformation of Moscow and Beijing is lamentable, which partly explains pro-Kremlin voting patterns at the United Nations.

This also throws light upon the presence of Wagner in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Mali and possibly soon Niger. His men are frequently spotted directing security, anti-terrorist and maritime piracy operations with national forces. Prigozhin’s personal absence will make no difference to this projection of Russian power. The proceeds of these security contracts will flow to somebody else — maybe Shoigu’s own “Patriot” private military company or maybe the Kremlin. Moscow is also the largest supplier of arms to Algeria, South Sudan, Uganda and Angola, and it has military cooperation agreements with most of the rest of the continent. It is actively seeking an East African military port on the coast of Sudan. When President Zelensky addressed the African Union (AU) in June 2022, only four heads of state from the continent’s 54 countries bothered to listen in, with others represented by subordinates. Russia, a global military power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has thrown money into Africa. Many of its leaders, happy to take Putin’s gold, conclude they cannot afford confrontation with Moscow.

The man in the Kremlin has consistently tried to bulldoze his worldview past his fellow BRICS-ites, and the South African summit would have been an ideal opportunity to play to their prejudices against “Western colonial oppression” and the “financial domination of the Yankee petro-dollar”. However, South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, India’s Narendra Modi, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil (known universally as Lula) and China’s Xi Jinping are not fully behind him. They have warned the Russians against nuclear escalation in Ukraine, which accounts for Putin’s refusal so far to “go nuclear”, despite his language to the contrary. Although many African states of what is now-termed the “Global South” buy into Putin’s hostile narrative, as does veteran left-winger President Lula, the Russian still faces an uphill struggle.

He was personally absent from the summit, because South Africa would have been obliged to fulfil an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for his behaviour over Ukraine. Not attending in person, Putin instead offered a prerecorded video. He opted for the comfort blanket of Mother Russia, where he commemorated the 80th anniversary of the great Kursk tank battle of August 1943, distributed medals and decapitated the Wagner empire.

Throughout his digital presence at Johannesburg, Putin focused on the war in Ukraine and East-West tensions, even though the summit’s organisers warned they did not want these topics to dominate. In his remarks to the BRICS comrades, plus observers and heads of state from all of Africa’s 53 other nations, Putin claimed Russia “could replace Ukraine as a global grain supplier”. The rationale behind Russia withdrawing from the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative last month becomes clear.

Moscow is again using military force to strangle the supply line from Ukraine

Back in 2022, Moscow’s invasion trapped 20 million tonnes of Ukrainian wheat and sunflower oil, meant for export. World food prices rose, threatening starvation in Middle Eastern and African countries, whilst fertiliser costs quadrupled. That July, Turkey and the UN brokered a deal between Russia and Ukraine, allowing cargo ships to export the cooking oil and cereals. Despite the Kremlin making overtures to Turkey, Ankara has chosen to back President Zelensky. This year, on Ukraine’s National Day (24 August), President Erdogan reaffirmed that Crimea belonged to Ukraine, its territorial integrity must be respected and that Turkish support would continue.

Last year’s grain deal enabled around 33 million tonnes of foodstuffs to pass through the Black Sea, and world prices declined by 20 per cent as a result. The agreement allowed Kyiv to move grain safely by ship, through the Black Sea and via the Bosphorus, to the rest of the world. It helped alleviate the global food crisis, but one year on, Russia has suspended its cooperation. Now Moscow is again using military force to not only strangle the supply line from Ukraine, but to replace it whilst using the same shipping lanes.

The Kremlin’s campaign against Kyiv’s wheat and cooking oil involves denying safe passage through the Black Sea, in defiance of international maritime law. It also includes Iranian-made drones striking storage silos and port facilities around Odesa on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and at Izmail, across the Danube from Romania. Some 13,000 tons of grain were destroyed during last week alone, export capacity was reduced by 15 per cent. This was the eighth wave of assaults since Russia reneged on the UN-backed deal in July. So far, it has caused the loss of around 270,000 tonnes of cereals from this year’s harvest. Not only does Ukraine’s transport infrastructure suffer, along with her farmers, but Kyiv’s eventual customers again face starvation.

To increase her own grain exports, however, the Russian Federation — the world’s largest country by area, extending across eleven time zones, and Europe’s most populous state — will need to return more workers to the land, diverting resources and machinery back to farming. She already has to feed her own population of 150 million. This comes at a time when the Motherland’s economy is tumbling, which has pushed inflation to 12 per cent. There are labour shortages due to conscription and the war-related absence of migrant workers. Much of Russia’s transport infrastructure and many vehicles have been switched to war.

Enhanced Russian grain exports will come at great cost to the Motherland. Putin will persist nonetheless, due to the need to gain foreign currency, on account of the weakening ruble. Ukraine’s population, currently 37 million, doesn’t face the same tensions. The West is helping repair the damaged infrastructure, meaning a greater per centage of its people can be employed in war fighting.

Once again, Russian aggression is jeopardising the flow of wheat, other cereals and cooking oils to African countries who are not self-sufficient. Last year, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, then head of the AU, was obliged to fly to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss with Putin how to unblock grain shipments. Behind the scenes at this year’s summit in Johannesburg, President Cyril Ramaphosa was doing the same. In a weird twist of irony, many of those in desperate need of Ukraine’s grain are the same countries sympathetic to Russia at the UN and supporters of the greater BRICS bloc. The world is again lining up for another Cold War — if we’re not already in it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover