What Russia’s Weaponization of Hunger Can Tell Us About the Power of Shame

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a UN-brokered agreement between Russia and Ukraine signed in July 2022 (Public Domain Pictures).

The global humanitarian community had whiplash last week. This stems from Russia’s decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, an agreement facilitating the exportation of wheat from the region, and then promptly re-entered just days later. While it is unclear exactly what prompted this fortunate switcheroo, it is very likely that high stakes for the international food crisis were a major factor.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative is a UN-brokered agreement between Russia and Ukraine signed in July 2022. The agreement allowed the exportation of grain through Russia’s black seaport, which had been blocked since its February 2022 invasion. The deal allowed Ukraine to more than double food exports which is critical given the increasing food insecurity across the globe.

2022 has been a year of “unprecedented hunger,” according to the World Food Programme. Conflict, including the war in Ukraine, inflation, and supply chain issues have caused food prices to reach new highs. It is not just grain whose availability is not guaranteed – other commodities, like fertilizer exports from Russia, that are challenging to acquire during this tenuous period, stand to decrease food security and inflict more hunger.

The UN trade agreement between Russia and Ukraine brought crucial grain and fertilizer supplies to a hungry Global South, mitigating punishingly high food prices after a lapse in shipments for five months. After the deal was suspended last week, future prices for wheat increased by 5 percent. In addition, the suspension of the deal stood to disrupt key grain supplies to countries with pervasive food insecurity, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan, and Yemen.

Russia quickly re-entered the deal, it seems, due to international shaming. UN officials and humanitarian groups shouted from the rooftops that Russia’s actions could put thousands in danger of starvation. While most of the outcry came from Western leaders, ambassadors from Kenya, Mexico, the UAE, Ghana, and Brazil took part in the lambasting during a UN Security Council meeting.

Despite this, international shame is not the rationale behind Russia’s decision to re-enter the initiative. After negotiations with Turkish and UN brokers, Russia apparently re-evaluated the terms of the agreement and decided that “the guarantees received at the moment appear sufficient.” Such a drastic change of heart with such a lukewarm justification suggests that naming and shaming had more of an effect than Russia has let on.

This begs the question, if Russia was swayed by international pressure today, why hasn’t it been swayed in the past?

Shaming hasn’t typically worked with Russia. In the past, Russia has had zero qualms about weaponizing other commodities like natural gas and oil. Beginning in the fall of 2021, Russia began cutting supplies of natural gas to Europe, raising energy prices to unprecedented levels. High electricity prices mean many plan to spend the winter cold and in the dark. Yet, Russia did not budge when Europe and other Western countries pointed out this clear collateral punishment. It is also evident from the thousands of civilian casualties and war crimes in Ukraine that Russia does not care about its reputation abroad.

This food crisis is different, however, because it involves a new audience: the Global South. Previous grievances have been limited to Western sources and Western victims. Even the Ukrainian people are, unfortunately, part of this category. The world successfully persuaded Russia to re-join the Black Sea Grain Initiative only because part of the criticism came from new non-Western victims: countries with food insecurity in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, primarily.

Russia cares far more about this new audience because of its recent geopolitical strategy, pandering to broaden its influence in the Middle East and Africa. Adhering to this “anti-colonialist” strategy and rhetoric, Russia began hosting an annual Russia-Africa Summit, expanding military cooperation in the Sahel, and financing expensive energy infrastructure in countries like Egypt.

Cut off from all Western supporters, Russia is geopolitically dependent on nations in the developing world and Global South as allies. Building upon shared anti-western sentiment and referencing the bloody legacy of colonialism are Russia’s best tools, and any maneuver that jeopardizes this base of support is highly vulnerable. The drama over the Black Sea Grain Initiative teaches us an important lesson about Russia’s weaknesses, and its willingness to inflict collateral damage. Moscow will withstand global humiliation and a policy flip-flop to avoid angering its only friends.

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