Ukraine’s Grain Under Russia’s Reign

Sam Vaknin
A bouquet of wheat spikelets tied with a yellow and blue ribbon in the hands of a girl in an embroidered shirt. Hands close-up focus on ears of corn. Independence day of ukraine, constitution flag

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Here is some breaking news: Russia and Ukraine compete in the same export markets for grain and fertilizer. Russia has zero incentive to help Ukraine with its outflows of both. Russia has all the reasons in the world to obstruct Ukraine’s exports, especially since both polities are at war.

Russian drones have been busy demolishing Ukrainian ports and silos on the river Danube, only a few miles away from NATO member Romania. It is the only other route to Ukraine’s markets, now that Russia has pulled out of the Türkiye-brokered deal that allowed its mortal foe to ship corn, wheat, and other products via the Black Sea. 

Grain depots and other pertinent infrastructure in the city of Odesa are faring no better at the hands of the relentless Russian military. Several ports have been targeted, including Izmail and Reni. Hangars, warehouses, and storage tanks went up in flames. Nightly attacks are a daily occurrence. More than 60,000 tons of grain were incinerated there last week alone.

World exchanges are aghast. Ukraine is the 7th largest wheat exporter with more than 71% of its land cultivated. 

On July 17 alone, the prices of cereals climbed between 8-10%. That was the day Russia extricated itself from the improbable Black Sea Grain Initiative which allowed war-ravaged Ukraine to sell close to 33 million metric tons of food to destinations on the brink of starvation worldwide.

If anyone has had any doubts about the psychopathic nature of Putin and his war, these recent assaults have put them to rest. By disrupting supplies, Russia is targeting the world’s poor and famished whose main source of threadbare sustenance via various international aid programs consists of Ukraine’s bread basket bounty. 

Even more worrying is how brazenly close to NATO have Russian offensives become. Reni is a mere 200 meters across the river from a member country (Romania) and only 10 kilometers removed from one of its major ports, Galati.

Since Russia has invaded Ukraine, the Danube has been converted by its neighbors, Poland and Romania, into an alternative route for Ukraine’s exports via rail, roads, and on water. The year preceding the invasion, the river carried 600,000 tons of grain into Europe and beyond. 12 months later, more than 2,000,000 tons.

But this is a fraction of the total available and at risk of rotting. The Danube is also exorbitantly more expensive than sea-going fare.

Some of the Ukrainian grain remained stuck in the countries along its path, driving down domestic prices and alienating local farmers in the process. 

Putin lost no time in offering Russian grain to replace the vanquished Ukrainian harvests. Moscow will host 50 (out of 54) countries in a Russia-Africa summit and the Boss himself is hinting at “free of charge basis” comestibles for the more blighted areas on this continent.

“The countries in need will definitely receive the necessary assurances regarding their need for agricultural products” during the summit, vowed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin.

In an op-ed syndicated in Kenya’s two largest papers, the Russian Ambassador to Kenya, Dmitry Maximychev, expostulated with the West for the failure of the previous arrangement. He accused Russia’s interlocutors for using “every trick” to bar Russian grain and fertilizers from global markets.

Caught in the crosshairs of this tit-for-tat are at least 1.3 billion people, most of them denizens of the attendant states in the summit. 

The fate of the contracts which the much humbled Wagner group has with Mali, Sudan, and others is intricately and intimately linked to the looming famine. The Wagner mercenaries are paid in gold and other minerals which are then transferred to Russia’s dwindling coffers, at least in theory. 

So, Russia is coerced to feign interest, however faint, in the African proposal for peace talks with Ukraine. 

Putin himself is a liability: South Africa effectively barred him from attending an economic conference there owing to his newly acquired status as a fugitive from the justice meted out by the International Criminal Court. Having visited sub-Saharan Africa only once in the past two decades, he did not seem too crestfallen at his cancelled travel plans.

Russia is a negligible player in this vast and pivotal continent: less than 18 billion USD in annual trade and less than 1% of total FDI. No humanitarian aid to speak of. Promises to quintuple the exchange of good and services, made in the first Africa-Russia summit in 2019, floundered.

But Russia is Africa’s biggest arms supplier. It also rails against “colonial” interference in the internal affairs and traditional value systems of various countries there. 

The West must not lose Africa whose population will make up 25% of the global tally by 2050. It is shocking nearsightedness that it is not offering to offset the shortages of food single-handedly, as it easily could. 

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Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. is a former economic advisor to governments (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, North Macedonia), served as the editor in chief of “Global Politician” and as a columnist in various print and international media including “Central Europe Review” and United Press International (UPI). He taught psychology and finance in various academic institutions in several countries ( )