Russia’s War on Ukraine’s Grain and Global Food Supply, in Five Myths

Russia’s disinformation myths cannot hide the hard truths that (1) sanctions did not apply to Russia’s grain, (2) Ukraine’s grain is critical to getting adequate food to low-income countries, (3) Russia cannot replace Ukraine’s grain supply, (4) the Kremlin is on track to destroy more grain than it has offered to donate, and (5) every day more Russian missiles and drones intentionally target the vital pipeline that provides Ukraine’s grain to the rest of the world and keeps food prices stable.

“Moscow is waging a battle for global catastrophe: these madmen need the world’s food market to collapse – they need price crises, they need supply disruptions. Someone out there thinks they can make money from it. Someone over there in Moscow is hoping that they can make money on this. These are very, very dangerous hopes.” – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, August 2, 2023

On July 17, 2023, Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) under false pretexts. This unilateral action suspended the deal that brought nearly 33 million tons of grain exports to global markets, with well over a half of that grain and two-thirds of the wheat reaching the developing countries. It was the equivalent of 18 billion loaves of bread. Days later, the global price of grain rose 17 percent, while Russia announced record grain exports. The Kremlin positioned the market to exact a high price for itself at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable as it surges attacks on Ukraine’s ports and grain. Russia repeatedly used disinformation attempting to discredit the BSGI and threaten withdrawal while the initiative was in effect from July 2022 through July 2023.

In the aftermath of Moscow’s withdrawal from BSGI, the Kremlin continues to distort data, deny facts, and manipulate math attempting to perpetuate five false myths. First, the Kremlin falsely tries to portray Russia as a victim of sanctions on grain and fertilizer exports, when, in fact, Russia’s restrictions on its own exports and its illegal war on Ukraine have impeded shipments. Second, Moscow falsely claims that low-income countries did not benefit from BSGI, when, in fact, approximately 20 million tons of that grain went to developing countries. The initiative also greatly benefited the UN World Food Program (WFP) by stabilizing global prices and getting Ukraine’s grain supply to the countries that needed it most. Third, the Kremlin spreads manipulative claims downplaying the importance of Ukraine’s grain to the global food supply, while it works to actively demolish Ukraine’s ability to export grain that could feed millions of people globally. Fourth, Moscow attempts to portray itself as a magnanimous benefactor and a guarantor global food security, when, in truth, Russia is a distant 34th largest contributor to the WFP even as it expects a record harvest. Fifth, while the Kremlin falsely claims BSGI security corridor provided cover for Ukraine’s military activity, Russia’s intensified strikes on Ukraine’s civilian port infrastructure, which have already destroyed 220,000 tons of grain according to the government of Ukraine, illustrate the Kremlin’s true motive: to cut off a vital economic lifeline for Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s data distortions and misleading math cannot hide the facts. The Russian Federation launched an unprovoked, unjustified, and illegal war against Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to block Ukraine’s ports and endanger civilian shipping vessels transporting food as Russia’s missile strikes destroy Ukraine’s grain silos and its transportation hubs. Moscow’s withdrawal from BSGI raises prices on Russia’s grain and fills the Kremlin’s war coffers at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable. Russia will reap profits from this spike in food prices and its record bumper crop, while it eliminates its chief competitor and makes the world forget about Ukraine’s vital contribution to feeding the globe’s neediest people. In truth, Russia is the sole aggressor, attempting to block the vital flow of grain to the world’s neediest people.

Weaponizing Hunger

The Kremlin’s unprovoked and unjustifiable war against Ukraine has severely damaged Ukraine’s economy and exacerbated global food insecurity, especially in developing countries. Ukraine has long been a “breadbasket of Europe,” feeding millions across the globe. It was a top grain supplier to dozens of African and Middle Eastern countries in 2021. Since Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion, Russia has blocked Ukraine’s trade routes through the Black Sea, mined Ukraine’s agricultural fields, burned crops, destroyed Ukraine’s food storage supplies, created labor shortages, and attacked merchant shipping vessels and ports. Russia is also stealing Ukraine’s grain for its own profit. As the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported, the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine “disrupted agricultural production and trade in the Black Sea region and triggered an unprecedented peak in international food prices in the first half of 2022.”

In July 2022, the United Nations and Türkiye brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) to allow “safe navigation for the export of grain and related foodstuffs and fertilizers” from Ukraine’s ports to ensure that commercial food and fertilizer could reach global markets. Türkiye’s and the UN’s heavy lifting was a master stroke of diplomacy. Kyiv and (until July 2023) Moscow participated in the BSGI, and the Initiative proved critical to lowering inflation in global food prices and getting urgently needed grains to people around the world.

Myths, Math, and Misdirection at the Russia-Africa Summit

While the BSGI was in effect from July 2022 to July 2023, Russia repeatedly used disinformation and false pretexts in an attempt to discredit the deal and threaten withdrawal. As the Global Engagement Center previously detailed in its May 2023 bulletin, Russia Must Stop Its Attacks on Food Security, the Kremlin has repeatedly weaponized global food security and propagated falsehoods while it sought to profit from the food crisis it exacerbated with its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Following Russia’s withdrawal from the BSGI, President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem dusted off hackneyed false narratives and introduced trite new ones, featuring them prominently at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in July 2023.

Myth One: “Russia is a victim of sanctions on food and fertilizer.”

Moscow has persistently propagated a false narrative that sanctions imposed on Russia for its illegal war of choice against Ukraine impeded Russia’s exports of food and fertilizer, including under the BSGI. Russian officials and state-funded media regularly recycled false claims that U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia “closed off all avenues” for the transportation of Russian grain and fertilizer. In the leadup to the July 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, Putin again alleged that “none of the exemptions from sanctions for Russian grain and fertilizers were fulfilled,” while simultaneously boasting that Russia exported nearly as much grain products to Africa in the first half of 2023 as in all of 2022, despite complaints about non-existent obstacles.

The truth is the United States have not imposed sanctions on the export of food and fertilizer from Russia. The United Nations has coordinated with the private sector and with the United StatesEU, and UK to clarify any concerns raised by Russia. These countries have issued comprehensive guidance to explain exceptions for Russia’s food and fertilizer exports in their sanctions.

In fact, Russia restricted itself. In the months immediately following its full-scale invasion of Ukraine and before the BSGI went into force, Russia restricted its own exports, manipulating the global markets and blocking food exports from Ukraine, to maximize profits at the expense of vulnerable populations worldwide.

The data speaks for itself. Russia did very well under the BSGI. While BSGI was in force, Russia exported 56 million tons of grain products, earning $41 billion in the process. The United States and its allies strongly supported efforts by the UN to bring both Ukrainian and Russian grain to world markets to reduce the impact of Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine on global food supplies and prices. As a result, Russia’s fertilizer revenue soared in 2022, according to UN data. Russia is also enjoying record wheat sales. Its wheat exports were “close to record highs” by December 2022, according to experts and Russia’s grain exporters trade group. Russia exported 45.5 million tons of wheat, up 27 percent from the prior year.

Russia reaped high-level profits from exporting agricultural products, largely a result of elevated global commodity prices caused by Putin’s war. Following Russia’s withdrawal from BSGI in July 2023, global grain prices have spiked by 17 percent, punishing the world’s most vulnerable populations in the process. In the aftermath of Russia’s withdrawal, Moscow wielded disinformation to discredit the BSGI while high-ranking Kremlin officials and state-paid propagandists openly called on the government to weaponize hunger.

Myth Two: “Low-income nations do not benefit from the grain initiative.” 

In the leadup to Russia’s withdrawal from the BSGI and in the weeks since, the Kremlin has distorted data and propagated a manipulative narrative that the BSGI did not benefit the countries in greatest need. In May 2023, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) continued manipulating information aimed at discrediting the BSGI even as it confirmed extending the deal (from which it later withdrew.) The MFA questioned the “humanitarian component” of the BSGI, arguing that less developed nations do not benefit from the initiative because they allegedly received only 2.5 percent of the exported grain. On July 17, 2023, Russian state media amplified Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov’s comments on the BSGI’s “de facto termination,” as he claimed that the “poorest countries received the least.” Ahead of the Russia – Africa Summit, Russian state media amplified Putin’s July 24 article which recycled disinformation about the geography of shipment distributions under the BSGI to falsely accuse the United States and allies of using the initiative “solely for the enrichment of large U.S. and European businesses,” while undersupplying developing countries. In his July 27 speech on the opening day of the Russia – Africa Summit, President Putin further distorted publicly available BSGI data to claim that more than 70 percent of food products exported through the BSGI went to countries with above average income, while “low-income countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia… received less than 3 percent of the total volume.”

Contrary to Russia’s claims, the BSGI has helped people in need by directly delivering desperately needed Ukrainian grain to lower-income countries and by bringing down food prices globally. Every shipment under BSGI reduced hardship by bringing grain to market and lowering food prices for all. Lower prices allowed the UN World Food Program (WFP) to purchase more grain, all for the benefit of low-income countries. According to UN Black Sea Grain Initiative Joint Coordination Center, over 1000 ships left Ukraine’s ports and delivered nearly 33 million tons of grain and foodstuffs to 45 nations, with 57 percent of cargo reaching low- or middle-income developing countries in Africa and Asia and 65 percent of the Ukrainian wheat reached developing countries, including 19 percent to the “poorest, least developed countries.” The vast majority of the Ukrainian crop shipped to Türkiye – the third largest recipient – was then reprocessed and exported as flour to countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Putin’s math manipulation also self-servingly ignores the fact that Ukraine supplied the WFP with over 80 percent of its wheat as of July 2023 under the BSGI, and up from 50 percent from 2021 before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The BSGI enabled the WFP to transport 29 shiploads — including 725,000 metric tons of Ukraine’s wheat as humanitarian food assistance — to Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. The BSGI was immensely successful in doing what it was meant to do – keeping global grain prices from rising dramatically, while getting food to those who needed it most around the world.

Russia falsely claims that the BSGI does not help developing countries, while Russia itself does little to help countries most in need. What Putin also did not mention at the Russia-Africa summit in July 2023 is that Russia had yet to offer any free grain to the WFP, while it widely exports its grain to high-income or middle-income countries. Meanwhile, the BSGI stabilized global grain prices and provided the equivalent of 18 billion loaves of bread in wheat exports, with the equivalent of 11.5 billion loaves of bread reaching developing countries.

Myth Three: “Ukraine’s share of the world wheat market is replaceable – by Russia.” 

President Putin continued his math manipulations at the Russia – Africa Summit with a fresh false narrative. Boasting about Russia’s allegedly record harvest, Putin claimed Russia “can replace” Ukraine’s grain through its exports and granted aid, because “Russia’s share in the world wheat market is 20 percent, and Ukraine’s – less than five.” To support his assertion, Putin said that in 2022 Ukraine exported 47 million tons of grain products, out of 55 million tons it harvested, of which 17 million tons were wheat, while Russia exported “60 million tons out of 156 million it harvested, of which 48 million tons were wheat.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Russia’s exports are lower than what Putin reported — closer to 56 million tons of grain exported out of 137 million tons harvested, with 45.5 million in wheat exports. That Ukraine harvested 55 million tons of grain despite Russia’s invasion, active mining of Ukraine’s fields, and shelling of its farmers and still exported 85 percent of its harvest is a remarkable feat of resilience by Ukraine’s farmers and agricultural workers. What Putin did not mention was how much wheat Russia uses to feed Russians, nor did he explain why Russia exported only 38 percent of its grain, and why in 2023, despite its record crop, it remains a distant 34th among donors to the World Food Program that feeds the world’s most vulnerable. Without an answer to those questions, Russia’s claim it can replace Ukraine’s share of grain exports, particularly to those countries most in need, is not credible.

Putin’s misleading math aims to deny and erase the enormous role Ukraine plays as a “global breadbasket.” Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine was among the top agricultural exporters in the world. It was the number one exporter of sunflower seed oil, providing 50 percent of the world’s market. It was third in barley (18 percent share), fourth in corn (16 percent share), and the sixth largest exporter of wheat, exporting 8 percent of the global supply. In 2021, Ukraine exported cereals worth $12 billion, with 92 percent of its agricultural products reaching Africa and Asia. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Russia’s war of choice has contaminated over 12 percent of Ukraine’s farmland with landmines. The highest wheat-producing areas in southern Ukraine, such as in the Kherson region, are also the ones most devastated by Russia’s war, especially in the aftermath of the Nova Kakhovka Dam breach and flood on June 6, 2023. In 2021, Ukraine’s farmers sowed over 16 million hectares (over 40 million acres). In 2022, the land planted with grain dropped to 11.6 million hectares (28.6 million acres), a reduction of at least 28.5 percent in sowed land, representing an area almost as large as Belgium. The sowed land area is expected to fall further to 10.2 million hectares (25.2 million acres) in 2023. By continuing its war of choice, suspending the Black Sea Grain Initiative, blocking Ukraine’s ports, and placing land mines in Ukraine’s agricultural fields, the Kremlin is actively seeking to diminish Ukraine’s share of the global food market. By removing its nearest competitor, Russia is positioning itself as the primary alternative.

Myth Four: “Russia is the magnanimous benefactor and guarantor of food for the world’s neediest.”

As Putin laid out his vision for Russia-Africa cooperation at the July 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, he portrayed Russia as a magnanimous benefactor of the world’s most needy. He promised “in the next three to four months to provide Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Eritrea with 25 to 50 thousand tons of grain free of charge.”

Any contribution to alleviate global food insecurity is welcome, but let’s put Putin’s supposed magnanimity into context. 25 thousand tons is 0.03 percent of Russia’s 2022 overall harvest of 137 million tons (and even less than Putin’s claims of harvesting 156 million tons of grain.) If Russia follows through on its pledge to provide 50 thousand tons of grain to each of those countries, or 300 thousand total tons of grain, that would amount to 0.2 percent of Russia’s overall harvest. 300 thousand tons is less than one percent of the total volume exported under the BSGI, and less than half of the 725 thousand tons Ukraine provided to the WFP through the BSGI.

For context, the United States has provided over $14.5 billion since June 2022 to address food insecurity and humanitarian assistance. The United States remains the largest single contributor to efforts to address acute and medium- to long-term food security needs on the African continent, and as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on August 3, an additional $362 million in assistance to Haiti and 11 African countries facing severe food insecurity, exacerbated by Russia’s war against Ukraine and withdrawal from the BSGI, will be provided this year. In July 2022, the United States provided $476 million in urgent assistance to Somalia to help avert a famine declaration. The United States is also the world’s largest donor to the UN World Food Program, and contributed 50 percent of the WPF’s budget in 2022, over $7.2 billion. One need only look to Russia’s own contributions to the WFP to see how unconcerned the Kremlin is about global food insecurity. As of July 2023, Russia is the 34th largest contributor to the World Food Program, behind the United States (1st), most other states in Europe, several Asian countries, and the countries of Honduras, South Sudan, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, amongst others. In 2022, Russia’s contributions totaled a mere 0.2 percent of the WFP’s humanitarian assistance, despite record crop harvests and export profits.

As UN Secretary General Guterres said in reaction to Putin’s “magnanimous” offer, “a handful of donations to some countries” cannot replace the millions and millions of tons of grain exports through the BSGI that helped stabilize food prices around the world.

Myth Five: “The BSGI security corridor provided cover for Ukraine’s military activity.”

Kremlin officials and their propagandists spread disinformation attempting to justify attacks on Ukraine’s port infrastructure, grain storage facilities, and commercial vessels transporting grain with claims these civilian facilities have military purpose. Following its withdrawal from the BSGI, Russia escalated attacks on Ukraine’s food exports and infrastructure. Russian officials and the Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem amplified Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov’s July 17 comments on the BSGI claiming that Kyiv “used the deal for military purposes.” Russia’s State Duma Chair Vyacheslav Volodin echoedsaying: “It cannot be ruled out that the terrorist attack on the Crimean bridge was carried out under the guise of the grain security corridor.” Pro-Kremlin Telegram channel Readovka also speculated that “the marine drones responsible for the bridge attack” could have been deployed from the “last vessel to leave the Odesa port under the grain deal, such as the Turkish vessel Samsun.” On July 20, Russia’s MOD said it now considered all vessels sailing to Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea to be potential carriers of military cargo. Meanwhile, Russia continued to strike Ukraine’s ports and other civilian infrastructure in Odesa and beyond.

Russia’s drones and missile attacks have destroyed large stocks of grain that could have fed millions of people.  Russia continues to conduct missile strikes targeting both Ukraine’s ports and grain infrastructure. Russia is attempting to block Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, responsible for exporting 95 percent of Ukraine’s grain. One attack on an Odesa port facility on July 20 destroyed 60,000 tons of grain, enough to feed 270,000 people for a year, according to the WFP. Russian state media falsely claim that these facilities store foreign military hardware, yet video evidence shows grain, not guns and ammo, spilling out of the wrecked silos. Russia’s attacks on Chornomorsk on July 26, a port that facilitates nearly 70 percent of Ukrainian wheat exports to developing countries, caused damage that experts estimate will take at least a year to repair.

In addition to its bombardment of Odesa, Mykolaiv, and Chornomorsk, Russia has begun attacking Ukraine’s Danube River ports, along with civilian vessels, storage, and infrastructure facilities. According to Ukrainian officials, an August 2, 2023, attack on the port of Izmail on the Danube River damaged 40,000 tons of grain that was destined for countries in Africa as well as the PRC and Israel. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine reported that Moscow hit 26 port facilities, five civilian vessels and 180,000 tons of grain in nine days of strikes since quitting the BSGI. As of August 3, 2023, Russia destroyed 220,000 tons of grain stored in Ukraine’s port facilities and waiting to be shipped, most of it to the poorest countries in the world.

While the Kremlin purports to “make every effort to prevent a global food crisis,” Russia is poised to destroy more grain than it is willing to deliver to feed the world’s most vulnerable.

Kremlin’s Myths vs Global Realities

In the aftermath of its withdrawal from BSGI, Moscow distorts data, denies facts, and manipulates math attempting to portray itself as both a victim of sanctions and a magnanimous benefactor in the global food security crisis it exacerbated. President Putin and Kremlin officials downplay the importance of Ukraine’s grain to the global food supply and actively demolish Ukraine’s ability to export grain that could feed millions of people globally. In truth, Russia is the sole aggressor, attempting to block the vital flow of grain to the world’s neediest people, the export of which had been effectively coordinated through the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the UN’s World Food Program before Russia’s callous withdrawal from the Initiative.

Kremlin’s data distortions and misleading math cannot hide the facts. The Kremlin launched an unprovoked and unjustified full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to block Ukraine’s ports and endanger civilian shipping vessels transporting food. The Kremlin’s missile strikes have destroyed Ukraine’s grain silos and its transportation hubs. Moscow’s withdrawal raises prices on Russia’s grain and fills the Kremlin’s war coffers at the expense of the world’s most vulnerable. Russia will reap profits from this spike in food prices and its record bumper crop, while it tries to kill its chief competitor and make the world forget about Ukraine’s vital contribution to feeding the world.

The Kremlin is using hunger as a weapon. Putin falsely claims to “solve” a problem he himself exacerbated with his unprovoked and unjustified full-scale invasion of Ukraine and targeting of Ukraine’s grain supply depots and transportation hubs. In the 1930s, Stalin weaponized hunger as a weapon against Ukraine, causing millions of Ukrainians to perish. Nearly a century later, another cruel denizen of the Kremlin is weaponizing hunger against the world.

As Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State, appealed to the UN Security Council on August 3, 2023: “Every member of this council, every member of the United Nations, should tell Moscow:  Enough; enough using the Black Sea as blackmail; enough treating the world’s most vulnerable people as leverage; enough of this unjustified, unconscionable war.” Russia chose to start the war that exacerbated this global food crisis. Russia can choose to end it.