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Putin’s new war crime: starving world’s poor by blocking Ukraine’s grain exports

NATO nations and the U.N. must break Russia's blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, and rebut its efforts to blame the global food crisis on Ukraine.

A Russian vessel (top left) prepares to depart from the Mariupol Sea Port in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, on May 31. It marked the first time that a commercial ship used the port of Mariupol since the start of the Russian military action in Ukraine.
A Russian vessel (top left) prepares to depart from the Mariupol Sea Port in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, on May 31. It marked the first time that a commercial ship used the port of Mariupol since the start of the Russian military action in Ukraine.Read moreAP

You may think you’ve seen every horror in Russia’s kit of war crimes against Ukraine (short of weapons of mass destruction).

You haven’t.

Moscow is blockading (or destroying) Ukraine’s port cities on the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and preventing them from exporting grain. This has created a global food crisis.

With a level of cynicism that makes Machiavelli look angelic, Vladimir Putin is trying to turn a made-in-Moscow food disaster into a weapon. He is blackmailing the West to drop sanctions — or concede Russian domination over all Ukrainian ports, including Odesa — in return for Russia’s ending its blockade.

Neither NATO members, nor the United Nations, should permit Putin to profit from starving the world’s poor who depend on Ukrainian grain exports. The White House needs to focus on how to break Putin’s blockade — now.

» READ MORE: Sweden and Finland are joining NATO because Europe can't stay neutral about Putin's war

On Monday, at a U.N. Security Council meeting, the European Council’s president Charles Michel blamed Russia for using the blockade as “a stealth missile against developing countries.” This week, Russian missiles deliberately destroyed Ukraine’s second-biggest grain storage facility in the city of Mykolaiv, while Russian bombs and mines are preventing farmers from planting and harvesting.

“This is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty, and destabilizing entire regions,” Michel said. The fallout affects both Africa and the Middle East, which are heavily dependent on Ukrainian wheat. Efforts by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to mediate the crisis with Moscow have gone nowhere.

It is not feasible for Ukraine to export its grain by rail or road; trains and trucks can carry only a small percentage of what the bulk ships can transport.

“Russia is solely responsible for this looming food crisis,” Michel said. When Moscow’s U.N. ambassador walked out of the Security Council meeting, Michel tweeted: “Maybe it’s easier not to listen to the truth, dear Ambassador [Vasily] Nebenzia.”

So what is Putin’s game in trying to starve much of the world?

For starters, Putin is trying to put the blame for the food crisis on Ukraine and on Western sanctions. Nonsense.

If Russia hadn’t launched its unprovoked attack on Ukraine and closed off Ukraine’s coast with its warships, Kyiv’s exports would be flowing. Moreover, Russia’s grain exports — also critical to world supplies — are not sanctioned, and can still exit from Russian ports on the Baltic Sea and on the Pacific.

The Kremlin is simply using the blockade to try to blackmail the West into accepting its control over Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.

Russia has already captured two Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov — Mariupol, which it razed to the ground, and Berdyansk. The Kremlin’s key strategic goal now — so far unsuccessful — is to seize Ukraine’s largest port, Odesa, on the Black Sea.

Playing savior (from the crisis he created), Putin has proposed that Ukraine hand over its grain to the Russians, who will export it from occupied Mariupol. (Russian forces have already stolen 500,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat from territories they occupy and shipped it out of Russian-controlled Crimea.)

Obviously, it is a nonstarter to reward the thief for marketing stolen goods.

Putin has made an even more outrageous proposal. If Ukraine demines its coast — removing a key defense of its shoreline — the Russian naval forces will permit grain exports to leave Odesa.

In other words, Putin says the world should recognize Russian control of the Black Sea, which grossly violates international law and threatens the economic survival of Ukraine.

“While Russian warships in the Black Sea are loaded with missiles, it is very dangerous to open Ukrainian waters for them,” I was told by Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya. If Ukrainian mines are disabled, he said, “Russia could use this as an excuse even to land” on Ukrainian shores.

» READ MORE: Save Odesa to save the world from high food prices and hunger

Kyslytsya said Ukraine would only demine its coast (after Russia removes its own mines) if Kyiv were given security guarantees “from someone powerful” that would escort incoming and outgoing merchant vessels to protect them from Russian attack. That powerful country would also need to guarantee that Russian warships would not make use of the demined channel to attack Odesa once commercial ships left.

And — this is very important — the U.S. and European allies would have to finally deliver the anti-ship missiles that Odesa needs to hold off any Russian attack.

What country is in position right now to provide such naval escorts? Only Turkey.

A member of NATO, Turkey has reasonably good ties with both Russia and Ukraine. It also has a long Black Sea coast and international legal control over who can enter the Black Sea in wartime (via the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles straits).

Will Turkey take on the huge role of shipping escort and security guarantor for Odesa, with or without other NATO members? Will Russia try to block, or misuse, Turkish intervention?

Time is of the essence. “July is a red line in the south of the Odesa region,” I was told by phone by Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian parliament member from Odesa. “The harvest starts in July, and by the end of the month, there will be a big problem for grain storage. The farmers have grain but they can’t sell it.” Left unstored, grain will rot.

Putin must not be allowed to succeed in his latest war crime. The time to break the Russian blockade of grain shipments from Odesa is now.