The Other Victims of Russia's War on Ukraine: The Global Poor
Inflation from Putin's war could cause worldwide instability
Initially, Russia's invasion of Ukraine hit the pocketbooks of some of the world's richest people. The United States and United Kingdom sanctioned Russian oligarchs, leaving them wondering whether they could pay the bills. However, it's the global poor who may end up paying a far more dire -- and life-threatening -- price. Skyrocketing food and energy prices since the Russian invasion are threatening to send millions into poverty.
Last week, the United Nations Development Program reported that an additional 71 million people could be pushed into poverty (as defined as living on less than $3.20 a day) because of food and energy inflation since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Food and energy prices are synergistic -- rising energy prices affect food because food production is energy-intensive.) The invasion has a clear link to inflation. The UNDP reported that between half and two-thirds of the 12-month international price increase in energy, sunflower seed oil, and corn has happened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are huge international sources of grain, providing about 30 percent of the world's wheat and 75 percent of its sunflower oil. Countries in Central Asia and Europe could be particularly vulnerable due to their proximity to Ukraine, but effects will ripple in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
While any war would reduce economic output, Russia appears to have exacerbated the grain problem with its scorched-earth strategy. Russia has blockaded Ukraine's ports, which has pushed up food prices. Russia has bombed grain storage facilities. There are also widespread reports of Russians looting Ukrainian grain. On July 6, Turkey released the Russian cargo ship Zhibek Zholy, which carried 7,000 tons of grain stolen from Ukraine.
Russia's state media has openly admitted to using grain as a weapon. Russian television host and propagandist Vladimir Solovyov recently gloated on his program about how Russia was harvesting grain from occupied Ukraine. One of Moscow's chief propagandists, Margarita Simonyan, head of RT, said the quiet part out loud -- that starvation was Russia's "hope" for winning the war with Ukraine. She said, "The famine will start now and they will lift the sanctions and be friends with us, because they will realize that it's impossible not to be friends with us."
There is precedent for Russia using Ukrainian grain as a weapon. The historian Timothy Snyder tweeted about the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 caused by Stalin's collectivization. "For Stalin, Ukraine's black earth was to be exploited to build an industrial economy for the USSR. In fact, collectivized agriculture killed about four million Ukrainians. Notably, as people began to die in large numbers, Stalin blamed the Ukrainians themselves. Soviet propaganda called those who drew attention to the famine 'Nazis,'" he said.
While Russia has tried to blame food prices on the West, Western countries have specifically sought to exempt agricultural products. In April, U.S. Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen said that as the United States continues to impose sanctions on Russia, “we reiterate our commitment to authorizing essential humanitarian and related activities that benefit people around the world -- ensuring the availability of basic foodstuffs and agricultural commodities.” Western sanctions on energy, however, have pushed up the price of oil and gas, and Russia has made more money since the war started.
Rising food prices could cause political instability in the Middle East and Africa, potentially akin to the 2011 Arab Spring. As people struggle to eat and their poorly-run governments struggle to address inflation, many could try to migrate to the E.U. and cause instability in Europe, potentially endangering the sanctions coalition against Russia. (On July 9, protesters stormed the president of Sri Lanka’s residence amid mass demonstrations because of a dire economic crisis exacerbated by the Ukraine war.)
None of these sanctions would be in place had Russia not chosen to launch a war against Ukraine. Russia is blockading Ukrainian ports and stealing its grain. The fault of high food prices lies primarily with Russia. It is the height of cynicism that Russia is trying to hold food supplies hostage -- starving the world's poor in the process -- to win its war of choice, while blaming the West for it.
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