Russian airstrikes hit a freight railcar repair factory in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on the weekend, a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to facilitate the export of grain from Ukraine amid a worsening global food shortage and inflation crisis.
The latest attacks on the railcar factory — reportedly used to transport goods such as grain — have raised questions over the possibility Moscow could weaponize the supply of food. In so doing, it will exacerbate the global food shortage stemming from pandemic’s disruption of supply chains as well as the effects of climate change.
Some analysts agree with comments made by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “blackmailing” the world by holding food supplies hostage as part of his war strategy to end sanctions but others said the West, in looking to hold Putin accountable for Ukraine, had overreached by blaming Putin for everything.
Orysia Lutsevych, manager of the Ukraine Forum in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House said the Russian leadership was a “mastermind of creating problems and blaming them on others.”
“Putin has already said that the West should lift sanctions to enable safe passage of grain and to allow more Russian grain to reach world markets,” Lutsevych said. “Yes, they will blackmail the world and play heavy due to rising grain demand and risks of starvation.”
But others like Frederick Kliem from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) sees it differently.
“Parts of the Western media and political elites are on a quest to defame and isolate Putin and Russia whenever an opportunity arises. While an understandable motive, the issue of food shortages should be seen in that light,” Kleim told CNBC.
Bombing in Kyiv
On Sunday, the Russian ministry of defense confirmed Russian Aerospace forces destroyed military machinery such as T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles housed in the facility on the outskirts of Kyiv.
A spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Singapore told CNBC that “industrial buildings are often used by the Ukrainian military as strongholds and camouflage to stock and repair weaponry.”
However, theCEO of state-owned Ukrainian Railways, Alexander Kamyshin, said on social media there was no such equipment on the ground.
“Russians shelled our railcar repairing facility in Kyiv this morning; and said they targeted tanks that were [in] our factory. That’s [a] lie,” Kamyshin said on Twitter.
“We don’t have any military machinery [in] our factory. Only freight railcars that help us export grain and iron ore.”
The Russian embassy cautioned the use of social media comments, and said Russian troops in Ukraine were “operating with utmost restraint and do not intentionally attack civilian targets not used for military purposes by the Ukrainian armed forces.”
In March, the UN said civilians were “killed and maimed in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks, with Russian forces using explosive weapons with wide area effects in or near populated areas.”
Satellite images have previously contradicted Moscow’s claims that graphic images of civilians shot in the streets of Bucha were “staged.”
CNBC was not able to independently confirm the statements made by both sides.
Crucially, with Ukraine and Russia being major global exporters of grains such as wheat and corn, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent curtailment its exports had contributed to the global food crisis threatening people in countries across Africa and the Middle East, the United Nations said.
The International Monetary Fund said the world was facing a potential “confluence of calamities.”
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has compounded the Covid-19 pandemic — a crisis upon a crisis –devastating lives, dragging down growth, and pushing up inflation,” the IMF said in a note late last month.
Not only is agriculture at the center of Ukraine’s economy, it also provides food for 400 million people around the world, according to the UN.
Russia’s attacks on key seaports, such as Ukraine’s Odessa and Mariupol earlier in the crisis, have already ceased trade and container movements in the Black Sea through which the region’s food is transported, while also trapping food cargo at these locations.
According to Lutsevych, Russia not only paralyzed Ukraine’s capacity to export grain, but also blamed Ukraine for “mining,” or planting floating mines in open sea.
In an effort to isolate Russia for its aggression on Ukraine, certain segments of the West have sought to blame Russia now for “pretty much everything,” said Kliem, a multilateralism studies research fellow at the RSIS in Singapore.
While the Ukraine crisis had deepened supply problems for food and goods like fertilizer, those issues had existed before the war started, he pointed out. The demand for goods including food soared post-lockdowns amid still-disrupted supply chains and forcing up prices.
“Trying to portray Russian action, as deplorable as it is generally, as a ploy to hasten a food crisis, even a famine is simply propaganda on part of the West,” Kleim said.
He said there was “no reasonable basis to assume that Putin is driven by such morbid cynicism” especially when wealthier countries had also contributed to the food problem by snatching up staples in the market pricing out poorer ones.
“Worse still, currently we are seeing a high degree of professional investors speculating with basic food commodities as well as oil. This is the real outrage,” he added.
“The weaponization of food and other commodities is not a new phenomenon in war condition,” said Rahul Mishra, European Studies Program coordinator at the University of Malaya. “Putin was playing by the classical war handbook.”
“We must not overlook the point that the U.S. and European countries did not make the best decision by imposing sanctions on Russia without first assessing the long-term implications and securing alternative agricultural supplies and reserves.”
Putin has denied the global food shortage was brought on by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, instead he attributed food disruptions and rising prices to the pandemic and the U.S. and European countries for fueling price inflation through excessive stimuli.
“First, the situation with the global food market did not become worse yesterday or even with the launch of Russia’s special military operation in Donbass, in Ukraine,” Putin said during an interview with local media days before the attack.
The Donbass region includes the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in southeastern Ukraine, which is largely under Russian separatist control.
“The situation took a downturn in February 2020 during the efforts to counter the coronavirus pandemic when the global economy was down and had to be revived,” he added.
The U.S. and other countries pumping money into economies to jumpstart consumption also triggered price inflation, Putin said.
He said Russia has not stopped Ukraine from shipping out grain, whether or not sea routes were accessible. Ukraine had many land transport options, he insisted.