A Ukrainian serviceman attends at wheat field on the front line near the city of Soledar, Donetsk region, on June 10, 2022.

A Ukrainian serviceman attends at wheat field on the front line near the city of Soledar, Donetsk region, on June 10, 2022. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP) (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russia Is Boosting Food Prices to Undermine Global Support for Sanctions, Officials Say

Moscow is blockading exports, bombing silos, and telling the world that high prices are the West’s fault.

Russia is using the massive increase in global food prices as a “weapon” to turn countries against the sanctions that Western nations imposed on Moscow for invading Ukraine, EU and U.S. officials said on Wednesday. Other officials said the crisis would take years to resolve. 

Global prices for wheat, one of Ukraine’s main agricultural exports, have risen some 16 percent since Russia invaded in February and one-third since March 2021.  Russia has been blocking grain exports, targeting grain storage facilities, and even stealing food.

All this plus climate trends and other factors will likely keep food prices elevated for at least three years, said Cary Fowler, U.S. Special Envoy for Global Food Security at the State Department.

“We were dealing with climate change, dealing with COVID and supply-chain problems. We’re now dealing with conflict and we also have historically low grain stockpiles. And we're in the high point of a cycle for fertilizer prices,” Fowler said at an Atlantic Council event on Wednesday.” So if you really wanted to have a huge impact on food prices you'd probably have to be dealing with all of those. Unfortunately, that's rather difficult and can't be done overnight. So that's why I said a few minutes ago that I think we're dealing with a multi-year crisis and we ought to plan in that regard.”

All this echoes an April forecast by the World Bank.

A European diplomat said Russia was working to convince regional audiences that the rising cost of food should be blamed on Western sanctions, not Russia’s war on Ukraine.

“What we hear in some African countries, in some Middle East countries, is that if there is food price inflation, it's because of the EU or American sanctions, which is totally untrue,”  said Ambassador Charles Fries, the deputy secretary-general for common security and defense policy and crisis response at the European External Action Service. “There is a battle of narratives.” 

Amanda Sloat, senior director for European affairs at the White House’s National Security Council, said the Western fight against Moscow’s disinformation was “a very critical point” that would likely come up at next week’s G7 event.

“We recognize the global dimensions of this, and right now are continuing to explore the various pathways of getting the grain out [of Ukraine], including through the EU over land including the Odessa route,” Sloat said. 

But getting grain out of Ukraine has quickly become a challenge akin to getting weapons into the country, said Michael Scannell, deputy director-general of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development. 

“You simply cannot overnight replace the Ukrainian Black Sea ports. These were geared up to move huge volumes,” Scannell said. “Finding alternatives in the short term is very, very challenging, but that's the task we're setting ourselves.” 

Fowler said even the question of how to store the grain for later export is complex. “We can move in these large bags that you sometimes see in rural areas and store the grain. But how is the grain going to be harvested? Is there enough fuel? Are there enough farm workers to do that? What's the moisture content of the grain that goes into storage and what's the temperature at which it will be stored? All of these things determine how long you can store the grain.”

There may be further effects on food prices internationally, especially if countries start hoarding.

“As of at least a couple of years ago, 131 out of 196 countries in the world were net food importers. And one of the things that particular crises like we were experiencing today should teach us is certainly the importance of local and country food production. But it also teaches us the importance of trade to balance.” Fowler said. “I can promise you we are trying to explain to [the governments of various countries] the reasons why we shouldn't be having export restrictions on on these kind of vital materials.”