Russia’s weaponisation of global food supplies was a “war crime”, while its new threats against Lithuania were “worrying”, the EU’s foreign policy chief has said.
There was a risk “of a great famine in the world, especially in Africa” as Russia continued to block exports of Ukrainian grain, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in Luxembourg on Monday (20 June).
If you looked at how many people risked starvation in the Horn of Africa region before the double effect of the pandemic and the Russian war, compared to today, “you will be terrified by the increase in numbers,” he added.
What Russian president Vladimir Putin was doing was a “deliberate attempt to create hunger in the world in order to put pressure … on the EU [to lift sanctions],” Borrell said.
“This is a real war crime”, he said.
“If you are using hunger as a weapon of war — this has a name,” he added.
Russia has blamed EU sanctions for the food crisis, while itself blockading Ukrainian ports, bombing its agricultural and transport sectors, and imposing a 30 percent export tax on its own grain supplies to the world.
“It seems like [Russian president Vladimir] Putin wants to destroy Ukraine physically. To destroy infrastructure, cities. To annihilate the very idea of a Ukrainian nation,” Borrell said.
But despite the obvious realities on the ground, the EU said it was taking Russia’s propaganda campaign seriously.
Borrell said the EU foreign service has written to the foreign ministers of all African Union countries explaining the situation and offering to help in case private firms wary of EU and US measures were “over-complying” with sanctions, for instance, by refusing to insure or ship food from Russia in case they were fined, even though the EU has not banned Russian food exports.
“We have not lost the battle of narratives, but there is a battle,” he said.
Russia, on Monday, also threatened EU and Nato-member Lithuania after claiming that it had blocked a land corridor to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.
“If cargo transit between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of the Russian Federation via Lithuania is not fully restored in the near future, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests,” the Russian foreign ministry said.
Borrell said Russia’s comments were “worrying, as a matter of prudence”, but there was no Lithuanian blockade in reality, with most passenger and goods trains still going back and forth.
The only Russian goods being blocked from transit were those that had been banned by the EU from 17 June onward, Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis also said.
“About 50 percent of [Russian] goods that transit Lithuania are on the [EU] list,” he noted.
Landsbergis added that EU states should give Ukraine the weapons it needs to defend its ports and ships from Russian attacks if it wanted to get grain shipments moving again.
“There’s no other way. EU countries have the equipment,” he said.
The possibility of getting food out via ports in Lithuania, Poland, and Romania was “very limited”, he added.
Meanwhile, the EU must also continue talks on a seventh round of Russia sanctions to “raise the cost” of Putin’s invasion, Estonia’s foreign minister Andres Sutt said in Luxembourg.
Borrell said he would investigate whether EU sanctions on Belarus before the war, which restricted exports of potash, a fertiliser component, were having unwanted effects on food markets.
But he said some African sates had bought more potash than ever despite the measures.
Speaking to press in Brussels last week, the US ambassador to the EU, Mark Gitenstein, said it was more important to enforce existing sanctions than to impose new ones.
He also said it would take three to four months to clear the Ukrainian port of Odessa of sea mines put in place to keep out Russian warships, even if such an operation went ahead.