Trade Wars

The war in Ukraine risks causing famine in the MENA region

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has consequences that go far beyond Eastern Europe. Along with the looming gas crisis and inflation, many analysts and governments now recognize a growing wheat crisis, with Ukraine currently unable to export wheat to the Near East, a destination that makes up a good chunk of exports of cereals. What is now becoming apparent is that Russia may be deliberately withholding wheat to apply a scorched earth policy to Ukraine, creating an artificial famine for sanctions relief.

Since the modern foundations of Ukraine, the country has been responsible for large grain shipments around the world, especially to the Middle East and Africa. The Soviet Union relied on the Ukrainian wheat harvest, and the grain harvest has always been essential for Kyiv. As the Russian army continues to push into eastern Ukraine, questions and concerns have arisen over rising wheat prices.

Ukraine and Russia are already responsible for a quarter of the world’s grain and the war is only amplifying a crisis in food shipments. For example, Tunisia is already feeling the brunt of the crisis. To date, bread prices are hovering at a 14-year high; and with food shortages there is a risk of cuts in government spending and subsidies, which can trigger unrest in a country already going through a political crisis.

Yemen, the most malnourished country in the Middle East with an extremely brutal air campaign by Saudi Arabia and a US-backed blockade, is already embroiled in one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Starvation is one of the main causes of death and the country relies heavily on grain from Kyiv and Moscow. More than 17 million Yemenis have already been deprived of food due to the blockade and lack of emergency aid that has devastated large parts of the country. A population already war-weary and very malnourished cannot bear another catastrophe of a protracted war in Eastern Europe. Although a ceasefire was recently reached between warring factions in the Arabian Peninsula, a protracted war in Ukraine could exacerbate starvation conditions locally and threaten this delicate de-escalation.

Lebanon, which is currently going through one of the greatest governmental and financial collapses in modern human history, is the country most at risk when it comes to grain shipments. According to FT, 80% of wheat imports entering Lebanon come from Ukraine. As the Lebanese lira continues to rapidly lose value and political stalemate and corruption remain a stumbling block, the average citizen could face a cataclysmic food shortage not seen since the civil war. It also doesn’t help that Lebanon is sitting next to a nation whose regime has given Russia its unconditional support to wage war in Ukraine.

While Assad has generally been assured of Russian support, there are signs that his gamble on Ukraine could backfire. An impending Turkish offensive in northern Syria, along with slow reconstruction and changing demographics still haunt Assad, no matter how hard his government has tried to normalize the situation. Syrian refugees are refusing to return and the economy has still not recovered, making the government’s willingness to get involved in a war thousands of miles away seem a questionable business.

As the war in Ukraine continues, there is growing suspicion that this is all intentional, that Russia may deliberately inflate the wheat and grain crisis, most likely to gain sanctions relief by holding the world hostage. In the town of Chernihiv, Russian forces took over a cattle ranch and deliberately executed the cattle, according to residents who shared photos of the horrors. As Russia refocuses and repositions its forces for future operations, the goal appears to be to seize new territory in eastern Ukraine – the “breadbasket” region. By doing so, Russia is trying to secure leverage not only over Zelensky, but over the world as a whole. Putin and his entourage are realizing the ruthless mistakes they made in betting on the theory that Ukraine would surrender en masse in the early days and the international community would not mobilize together in support of Kyiv. Putin’s risk-taking on Ukraine stems from the lack of international response to past wars in Syria, Georgia and Chechnya, for example. Now that Russia has become the most sanctioned nation in the world, it is seeking to seize as many Ukrainian resources as possible in order to stabilize its long-term economic prospects.

More than three hundred civilian commercial ships have already been deliberately blocked by the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, cutting off a vital global trade route. Russian forces have also had their fair share of fire on civilian ships since the start of the invasion. On February 25, the Russian Navy targeted and fired at a Moldovan ship, and on March 2, the Russian Navy launched a missile at a Bangladeshi ship, killing one crew member. Similarly, in early April, an Egyptian ship loaded with grain from the port of Odessa was repeatedly refused passage. Although Moscow denies the allegations, the evidence seems to suggest that Russia is willing to escalate the wheat crisis to secure sanctions relief, even at the cost of world starvation. As RT chief and close Putin ally Margarita Simonyan said at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum: “All our hope is in famine.”

Finally, it should also be noted that wheat was a major factor in the early Arab Spring. With a new global post-pandemic inflation crisis and growing constitutional emergencies in the region, the war in Ukraine could have even more dire consequences for the region in the years to come.

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