NAIROBI, Kenya – Russia has bombed, blocked and plundered the grain production capacity of Ukraine, which accounts for one-third of global wheat exports, resulting in increased hunger of dire forecasts and spiking food prices around the world.
Now, the United States has warned that Kremlin is trying to profit from plunder selling stolen wheat to drought-stricken countries in Africa, some facing possible famine.
In mid-May, the United States sent an alert to 14 countries, mainly in Africa, that Russian cargo vessels were leaving ports near Ukraine with what a State Department cable described as “stolen Ukrainian grain.” The cable was identified by three Russian cargo vessels as it was suspected of transporting it.
The American alert about the grain has only sharpened the dilemma for African countries, many already feeling trapped between East and West, as they face a hard choice between one hand, benefiting from possible war crimes and dispelling a powerful Western ally, and On the other, refusing cheap food is a time when wheat prices are soaring and hundreds of thousands of people are starving.
The alarm sounded by Washington reinforced Ukrainian government accusations that Russia has stolen up to 500,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat, worth $ 100 million, since Russia’s invasion in February. Much of it has been trucked to ports in Russia-controlled Crimea, then transferred to ships, including some under Western sanctions, Ukrainian officials say.
On Friday, the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, met Russia with President Vladimir V. Putin, in an effort to secure safe grain supplies from the country.
Critics said during the trip, during which Mr. Sall referred to his “dear friend Vladimir,” played straight into Mr. Putin’s hands offered him yet another tool to leverage divisions into the international response to his brutal attack on Ukraine.
But many African nations are already ambivalent about the sanctions of the Western campaign against Russia for reasons that include their dependence on Russian arms sales, lingering Cold War-era sympathies and Western double standards.
On top of that, the continent is suffering badly.
Russia and Ukraine generally supply about 40 percent of wheat needs in Africa, where prices for grain are risen 23 percent in the past year, the United Nations says. In the Horn of Africa region, a devastating drought has left 17 million people hungry, mostly in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, according to the United Nations. More than 200,000 people in Somalia are on the brink of the famine.
Faced with such pressing needs, many African countries are unlikely to hesitate before purchasing Russian-supplied grain, no matter where it comes from, said Hassan Khannenje, director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research body in Kenya.
“This is not a dilemma,” Mr. Khannenje said. “Africans don’t care where they get their food from, and if anyone is going to moralize about that, they are mistaken.”
“The need for food is so severe,” he added, “that it’s not something they need to debate.”
Ukrainian officials say solution to Africa’s food problem is greater global pressure to end war, not buy looted grains There is a “simple answer,” Taras Vysotsky, Ukraine’s deputy minister of agriculture, said: “Stop the fighting.”
Mr. Vysotsky and other Ukrainian ministers have been accusing Russia for months of stealing grain from the territories it occupies in the southern breadbasket, described by one as “outright robbery.” Much of it has been taken from storage elevators occupied by parts of the Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they say.
“There is nothing left to steal,” Mr. Vysotsky said in an interview.
The first reports of grain plunder emerged in mid-March. Commentators on the Russian state TV stations have since openly boasted about the seizures, saying that Russia intends to continue with them.
The Russians also stole an estimated $ 15 million to $ 20 million worth of agricultural machinery, Vysotsky said.
Much of the looted grain, according to Ukrainian officials, ends up at ports like Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
In late April, video surfaced What the Ukrainian officials said was captured grain. In an analysis of the video, The New York Times confirmed it was taken in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, showing the convoy headed southwest on a main road toward Crimea.
At least 10 boats have been exported stolen grain, mostly wheat, through Sevastopol’s port since late February, according to the Ukrainians who are tracking shipments on the SeaKrime project run by the open-source investigation website Myrotvorets.
Marine tracking websites, and experts who monitor the vessels, said the ships, some under US sanctions since April, often turn off their transponders until they are at sea, likely to hide their port departure. But they still show up in satellite images or are photographed by spotters on the ground.
In the past month, three Russian vessels have been identified by the State Department cable as stolen Ukrainian grain of suspected carriers – the Matros Koshka, Matros Pozynich and Mikhail Nenashev – traveling between the Straits of Kerch, which divide Crimea and Russia, and in various ports. the eastern Mediterranean.
Sometimes they docked in Turkey or Syria; Other times, according to websites that track marine traffic, they turn off their transponders while crossing the Mediterranean, possibly to hide their final destination.
Two US officials confirmed the contents of the cable, which was sent on May 16 to 14 countries, mainly in northern and eastern Africa, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
Determining the provenance of a grain shipment is not straightforward, but an indication might be if Russia were selling it at a heavy discount, an American official said.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
In an email, a State Department spokesman declined to comment on the cable’s contents, but pointed to the Ukrainian reports of wholesale grain theft, as well as “numerous testimonies from Ukrainian farmers and documentary evidence showing Russia’s theft of Ukrainian grain.”
“The United States is working with other countries to prevent the sale of grain that has been stolen from Ukraine,” the spokesman said.
Several foreign officials said the United States had asked them to ensure their country did not buy stolen Ukrainian grain, with the request made in a spirit of cooperation, not coercion. In Pakistan, which is buying two million tons of wheat from Russia, a senior foreign office official said the Americans were stressed Pakistan’s sovereignty when they asked for help.
Turkey is a focus of efforts to track stolen Ukrainian grain because Russian vessels leaving Crimea usually pass through Turkish waters. On Friday, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey called on authorities to investigate the source of Russian-transported grain.
A spokesman for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the United States had information that Russian forces were regularly using damaging facilities to hold grain in eastern Ukraine.
On top of that, a Russian naval blockade has prevented the export of wheat from Ukraine. Ukrainian officials say about 20 million tons of grain are waiting for export in the Ukrainian-held port of Odesa.
The National Security Council provided a declassified map showing clusters of Russian warships in the Black Sea south of Odesa preventing Ukrainian cargo ships from leaving.
For many Ukrainians, theft of the grain – and its unlawful export – returned to the traumatic famine of 1932-33 when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian peasants had their grain expropriated. Four million people died in the hunger known as the Holodomor.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, many African countries have been treated as an afterthought, holding foreign powers engaged in a new round of Cold War-style rivalry. Over the weekend, several agreed to discuss the American alert about stolen Ukrainian grain.
Macharia Kamau, Chief Secretary at the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied Kenya had received any message. “Why would they need to warn us in the first place?” he texted. “Why would anyone buy anything looted? This sounds like a propaganda ploy. “
Mindi Kasiga, a spokeswoman at Tanzania’s Foreign Ministry, said her relative’s stance “has always been neutral.”
Across much of Africa, Russian-supplied grain over any western pressure is likely to backfire, said Mr Khannenje, the analyst, unless the West could offer a means of bridging the wheat shortfall.
“If the West can provide alternatives, countries will hear that,” he said. “But being hysterical about it is just going to push them further into the arms of Russia.”
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine.
Reporting was supported by Michael D. Shear and Edward Wong in Washington; Abdi Latif Dahir in Nairobi, Kenya; Megan Specia in London; Salman Masood in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Safak Timur in Istanbul.