By Con Coughlin, Defence Editor for the Telegraph - 20 May 2022
In his desperation to achieve some semblance of a victory in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that he is perfectly willing to employ far from conventional military force to achieve his aims.
The Russian president began the conflict by threatening to cut off Europe’s energy supply if it continued providing military support to Ukraine; a form of blackmail he has subsequently applied against Finland following Helsinki’s decision this week to apply for Nato membership.
He has also made threatening noises about the deadly capabilities of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. And Russian hackers even launched a clumsy attempt to disrupt voting during the Eurovision song contest, which was eventually won by Ukraine.
Now, Putin is using the prospect of a global famine to intimidate his foes, with Russia’s Black Sea fleet imposing a highly effective naval blockade against Ukrainian ports, preventing a country known as the "breadbasket of Europe" from exporting vital supplies of grain and other produce.
Washington estimates there are around 20 million tonnes of wheat and corn currently in storage in Ukraine, with no prospect of them being shipped out.
This has led the United Nations to warn that 36 countries - including Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which rely heavily on Ukrainian grain exports - face the very real prospect of mass starvation if the blockade continues.
Russia’s military intervention also threatens to disrupt supplies to Europe, exacerbating the cost of living crisis by causing sharp rises on key commodities such as sunflower oil.
The Kremlin has a history of using the threat of famine to intimidate its enemies: in the 1930s, nearly four million Ukrainians starved to death because of the famine - known locally as the Holodomor - that Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator, imposed on their country.
Moscow’s latest attempt to use the prospect of mass starvation to achieve its war aims certainly presents a significant challenge to Nato as it seeks to weigh up its options for ending the grain blockade, without provoking a direct confrontation with Russia.
One option would be for Nato warships to provide safe passage for cargo vessels operating in the Black Sea.
A similar naval exercise to protect commercial shipping was mounted in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when American and British warships protected oil tankers operating in the Strait of Hormuz.
But at a time when Nato is keen to avoid any further escalation in the Ukraine crisis, such an operation is unlikely to go unchallenged by the Russian navy, even if its firepower has been significantly diminished after last month’s sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet which was hit by Ukrainian anti-ship missiles.
Nato leaders will certainly be mindful that by seeking to create a global famine, Putin could be trying to goad them into taking action that will precipitate a larger conflict.
Consequently, we are more likely to see Western powers providing the Ukrainian forces with advanced anti-ship weapons to target the estimated 20 Russian warships still operating in the Black Sea, rather than initiating any measures that will result in direct confrontation with Russia.
Nato military chiefs will also be studying other options to resolve the grain crisis, such as exporting supplies by road and train, or even mounting an airlift operation, assuming safe air passage can be guaranteed against the threat posed by Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
At the very least, their aim will be to ensure Putin does not succeed in his plan to create mass starvation.
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Corn seeds in a damaged grain warehouse in Ukraine. Around 20 million tonnes of wheat and corn are currently in storage in the country, with no prospect of them being shipped out Credit: John Moore/Getty Images.