Although Odessa was only touched by the Russo-Ukrainian war, its port – the Black Sea’s most important – is under Moscow’s control, which prevents ship exports of grain and other agricultural products from there. To date, in fact, tons and tons of grain remain stalled in Odessa’s granaries. This is not only suffocating the Ukrainian economy, which is already in dire straits, but also risks causing a food crisis with serious global repercussions, as stated by the World Food Programme. For as is well known, Russia and Ukraine together produce a third of the global grain trade, and several Mediterranean and African countries import about 75% of their food needs from Kiev. Places such as Yemen, Lebanon, Syria but also Sri Lanka, Tajikistan and Laos thus risk paying a very high price due to this blockade and the consequent increase in the cost of food resources.
Although Russia has repeatedly denied the accusation that it is using food as a weapon, it is in fact holding millions of people hostage. Indeed, it seems hard not to think of this as a strategic move to bring down Ukrainian resources and morale and add pressure to the international system, hoping thereby to force an easing of Western sanctions. It is likely then that Russia is trying to compensate for its difficulties on the ground by controlling Ukrainian ports.
A “bread war” is thus clearly emerging, adding to the oil and gas wars with potentially devastating consequences for all. The international community is then mobilizing to find a solution, the issue having become a matter of national security not only for Ukraine. In fact, the food crisis has been placed at the center of discussions in the UN and EU fora, to which Volodymyr Zelensky appealed, taking advantage of the Davos audience, for support: «The world community will help us reopen the seaports, otherwise the energy crisis will be followed by the food crisis. There are several ways to do this, one is the military» warned the Ukrainian President. These days, it is being imagined how an international intervention that would in fact allow merchant ships to sail from Odessa could materialize. Some of the hypotheses on the table. US Admiral James Stavridis has spoken of a NATO mission to escort commercial ships stuck in ports. But any direct intervention on the Western side carries with it a very high risk of conflict escalation, just as has already been widely discussed with the issue of a “no-fly zone” over Ukrainian skies. Not to mention that, in any case, a sea-based mission would have to deal with mines scattered by the Ukrainian military in Black Sea waters to impede a Russian invasion. No small problem, as recalled by an old military saying reported by Marta Dassù in a piece in Repubblica: «Putting a mine in is easy, taking it out is a feat». Arms can then be supplied to Kiev to break the blockade imposed by Moscow, as the United States and Britain are doing, or even Denmark, which, as announced Monday at the Washington summit, plans to supply Harpoons, long-range anti-ship missiles. But few people believe in military intervention on this scale. There has also been speculation about using land rather than sea routes to transport the grain, but the risk of Russian bombardment would be too high and the time for realization too long.
A solution, however, must be found to avert the specter of a food emergency, as also discussed by Prime Minister Mario Draghi in his meeting in Rome with Bulgarian Premier Kiril Petkov this Monday. The Italian Premier had already pointed out that many countries, especially in Africa and the Middle East, are more vulnerable than ever to the risks associated with the grain freeze and he also feared that this could generate strong political and social instability on the ground.
Then speaking about how all this could have direct repercussions on Italy is Adolfo Urso, President of Copasir, according to whom Russia’s goal would be to create a crisis that would trigger a migratory process that would invade our country from Africa. Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio, after noting the failure of the Peace Plan presented to the UN last week, also said that in the coming days Italy will work hard to ensure that at least some of the grain present in Ukraine is evacuated. «And who knows if it is exactly a compromise between the parties on food security that could not build the way for a dialogue leading to peace» Minister Di Maio wondered, thus emphasizing how our countries’ food goals have the potential to bring the conflict to an end.
On this impetus, Draghi telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday afternoon, saying he felt a responsibility to find with him a shared solution to the ongoing food crisis and its serious repercussions on the world’s poorest countries: «The lives of millions of people are at stake», he said in press conference. The Kremlin in response has assured that it is willing to cooperate in overcoming the crisis although Putin, Draghi adds, believes that Western sanctions are to blame for the emergency without which Russia would have been able to export grain. It may be a futile attempt but it seems that a small – perhaps too much – glimmer of dialogue then may be opening.
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