Saudi Arabia is pissed off at Russia.
It’s not as if the Gulf state has released any angry statements to the press. Rather, Riyadh has made clear its displeasure in an indirect way. It has offered to host a “peace summit” next week that Ukraine will organize. Brazil, India, South Africa, and China are among the invitees.
Here’s the kicker: Russia is not on the invitation list.
It’s quite an embarrassment that all the BRICS countries except Russia are poised to attend the Saudi event. It’s also telling that Saudi Arabia, which has long collaborated with Russia on setting the price of oil, is deliberately snubbing its erstwhile petro-ally.
True, Saudi heir apparent Mohammed bin Salman has been looking for ways to salvage his international reputation after ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A very public effort to end the war in Ukraine could go toward rehabilitating the murderous prince (at least among those countries willing to excuse the heinous crime).
But the decision to work with Ukraine on such a summit is likely more about Saudi anger over Putin’s recent decision to destroy the grain deal that facilitated the delivery of Ukrainian agricultural products to global markets.
Wealthy Saudi Arabia is not so much worried about feeding itself in the wake of the deal’s demise. But it is worried about the impact of higher prices elsewhere in the region. The Arab Spring protests, after all, were triggered by the rising cost of basic commodities in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. Saudi influence in the region depends on the maintenance of a conservative political order anchored in despotic regimes that can manage the discontent of their own populations. In its blind ambition to destroy Ukraine, Russia is ignoring the more far-reaching consequences of its military policies.
It’s not just Saudi Arabia that’s angry about these consequences.
Recently, the Kremlin hosted a second summit of African leaders in Moscow. Back in 2019, 43 leaders showed up for the first such gathering. Last month, a mere 17 bothered to make the journey.
Here, too, multiple factors are at play. African leaders are understandably put off by Putin’s high-handed treatment of the African delegation led by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa that visited St. Petersburg in June, which turned into a dressing down of the visitors for their presumptuousness at including a Russian troop withdrawal in their peace plan.
But another major reason for the no-shows was Russia’s reckless rejection of the grain deal. African countries are particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of grain and have relied a good deal on relatively inexpensive Ukrainian imports.
At this point, Vladimir Putin is willing to suffer any number of self-inflicted wounds in order to beat Ukraine into submission. He will alienate a close ally like Saudi Arabia. He will anger an entire continent of people (where Russia already had a low reputation prior to the 2022 invasion). He will make it more difficult for millions of poor people to afford food. He will even complicate the efforts of Russian grain producers to bring their product to market.
Threats by Russian leaders to use nuclear weapons jeopardize the livelihoods of everyone on the planet, but such scenarios are highly speculative and constitute a future risk. The Russian campaign to undermine the world’s food supply, meanwhile, jeopardizes the livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people in the here and now.
Russian Actions in Detail
Because of the grain deal inked last summer, Ukraine managed to get to market more than 20 million tons of wheat, corn, and other grains that had been stuck in the country’s southern ports. In all, Ukraine managed to export 36.2 million metric tons of food during the year the deal was in place. Over half of those exports went to the developing world.
These shipments brought down the prices of food, which had spiked immediately after Russia’s invasion last February. The end of the deal did not quite reverse all the progress in keeping food affordable but it did lead to the largest one-day increase in wheat futures since the war began in February 2022. According to The Washington Post, “Unless Russia reverses course, this will make low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East more dependent on slightly more expensive Russian wheat, which produces about 20 percent of the world’s supply.”
Russia didn’t just destroy the deal. It has also set out to destroy Ukrainian grain directly by bombing silos and other agricultural infrastructure. In this way, it has managed to remove 60,000 tons of grain from the global food supply. Most recently, it has begun to target ports and storage facilities along the Danube river, an alternative route to get Ukrainian products to market. The latest attacks pushed wheat prices up around 3 percent and corn prices around 2 percent on world markets.
Russia is thus deploying two strategies to undercut its agricultural competitor: prevent grain from getting to markets and destroying it in storage facilities.
It’s not just the Middle East and Africa that will be affected by Russia’s agricultural warfare. The biggest importer of Ukrainian foodstuffs over the last year was actually China, which received one-quarter of the shipments. So, add China to the list of countries pissed off at the Kremlin for its tactics.
And while we’re at it, let’s expand that list to include the UN and everyone at risk of starvation wherever they live in the world. Over the last year, Ukraine supplied the World Food Program with 80 percent of its grain, which was up from 50 percent before the war. With its strategy of bomb and blockade, Russia is literally taking the food out of the mouths of the hungry.
But what about the supposed advantages that Russia received from signing the deal in the first place?
A parallel deal facilitated by the European Union made it easier for Russia to export its own grain, despite the thicket of economic sanctions imposed after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Last year, Russia exported a record 45.5 million metric tons of wheat, with an even larger amount expected this year. As the world’s largest wheat exporter, Russia could even take advantage of the moment to raise export taxes.
The bottom line: Moscow doesn’t need the deal any longer, especially if its dual strategy of bomb and blockade effectively eliminates a chief competitor.
War and Hunger
The food-insecure portion of the global population has been hit by a triple whammy: pandemic, climate change, and the war in Ukraine. According to the World Food Program, the number of people facing acute hunger in 2019 was around 135 million. By 2022, that number had risen to 345 million.
Ukraine faces significant food insecurity as well. One in three families—or 11 million people—are vulnerable. In the 1930s, Stalin’s regime used hunger as a tool to suppress Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule and the collectivization of agriculture. Around 3.9 million people died during the Holodomor (death by famine).
Putin can’t use the same tools as Stalin did to punish Ukraine’s rebelliousness. But the current Russian government is certainly attempting to destroy or otherwise undermine Ukraine’s capacity to feed itself. By so doing, the Kremlin is also forcing millions of other people around the world to go hungry.
Russia is flexing its muscles because it thinks it’s self-sufficient. It is the world’s second largest producer of fossil fuels (after the United States), third largest grower of wheat, fifth largest producer of iron and of steel, and eighth largest manufacturer of cement. The world needs what it produces, and large importers of energy and grain like China and India are willing to overlook what’s happening in Ukraine despite the occupying army’s ongoing violations of international law.
But Russia’s self-sufficiency is illusory. If the war were taking place in the nineteenth century or even the 1950s, Russia could indeed ignore the world’s anger. It can feed itself, power its factories, build its infrastructure. But in today’s modern society, advancement—or even, treading water—requires high-tech. And here, Russia is falling behind, thanks to corruption, sanctions, and war-related brain drain.
So, Russia pisses off the world—Saudi Arabia, Africa, China, the UN—at its own peril. The only question is: how many people will have to suffer for Putin’s grandiose ambitions before their collective representatives force the Russian government to give back the land it stole?
FPIF, August 2, 2023