Timid west must draw a line in the sea and break Vladimir Putin’s criminal blockade | Simon Tisdall

Political courage is required to prevent Moscow weaponising food supplies and risking starvation for millions

How much longer can the western powers delay decisive action to break Russia’s illegal Black Sea food blockade? The UN warns this reckless maritime siege, now entering its fifth month, threatens “catastrophe on top of catastrophe” for tens of millions of the world’s most vulnerable people dependent on Ukraine’s grain exports. Yet Nato and EU leaders are visibly floundering, disunited and distracted as apocalyptic disaster looms.

Questions about the west’s response to the Ukraine invasion – what weapons to send, whether Nato should act more forcibly – must be viewed in this larger context: the necessity of defending fundamental humanitarian principles upon which the UN and the global rules-based order have been based for 75 years. It’s about blameless victims of a manmade atrocity. It’s about decency, about leadership.

What Vladimir Putin is doing, right now, by weaponising staple food prices, creating artificial shortages, and risking starvation and famine among 100 million people from the Horn of Africa and the Sahel to Central America, constitutes a crime against humanity. That’s an act purposefully committed by a state as part of a systematic policy directed against civilians. There is no argument. He’s gone rogue. He must be stopped.

Ideally, the Russian people would do this themselves. Yet out of fear, impotence or ignorance, most now occupy a moral vacuum where a respected country used to be. So what are Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and all the other democratic leaders waiting for? Putin is mining Odesa’s waters, bombing silos and stealing grain. How many children must die horribly before they draw a line in the sea?

Fear corrodes the will to act, even though rampant price inflation imperils their national interest. Soon after the blockade began, Lithuania, bravely punching above its weight, proposed a naval “coalition of the willing”, preferably under UN authority, to escort Ukrainian grain carriers past Russian warships from Odesa to the Bosphorus. It’s an entirely reasonable idea.

But it hasn’t happened – mainly because Biden disproportionately fears direct Nato-Russia confrontation, because the UN security council is paralysed, and because Macron and Scholz privately oppose it. The Paris-Berlin dynamic duo, AKA the two stooges, still believe they can talk their way out of trouble by pressing Kyiv to give ground and making nice with a monster.

Alternative export routes have been floated, principally expanded use of trains and lorries. But only a fraction of the 20m tonnes of grain trapped in Ukraine’s over-full silos could be shifted this way. Meanwhile, with the ripening summer harvest imminent and no place to store it, endless diplomatic exchanges get nowhere fast.

The blockade was discussed at Friday’s EU summit and a special “food summit” in Berlin. It will feature at this week’s G7 and Nato meetings, too. Talk-shops are all very well. But with a heedless Russia on the rampage, concrete action is needed.

That was the lesson of hapless UK foreign secretary Liz Truss’s visit to Turkey last week which, like her trip to Moscow in February, achieved precisely nothing. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime, buying missiles from Russia while claiming to be a loyal Nato partner, has been predictably two-faced since the war began.

Ostensibly mediating a solution, Ankara gave a platform this month to foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Moscow’s liar-in-chief. “The Russian Federation is not creating any obstacle for the passage of ships or vessels,” Lavrov declared without a blush. Then the silly man gave himself the lie, by suggesting grain would flow freely if sanctions were lifted.

food has become a more potent weapon in his war with the international community than either oil and gas cuts or nuclear blackmail

For all the angry condemnation, Putin may be winning, at least over the blockade. Some African countries appear persuaded by Moscow’s propaganda claiming western sanctions are the problem. Putin knows the prospect of mass migration, sparked by hunger, touches a deep European nerve. In some ways, food has become a more potent weapon in his war with the international community than either oil and gas cuts or nuclear blackmail.

The longer the blockade continues, the worse things will get, in terms of food emergencies and political fallout. Import-dependent Egypt and Lebanon, for example, will face intensifying unrest as bread queues lengthen. War-ravaged Yemen, where 19 million people are already food insecure, is chronically unstable. For many in drought-hit Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Sudan, the outlook grows desperate.

Is the west really powerless to stop this crime without making humiliating concessions? No, say analysts Bryan Clark and Bill Schneider of Washington’s Hudson Institute. If Biden and allies such as the UK were a little bolder, they suggested in an online discussion, Russia might be deterred from blocking Ukraine’s grain.

Specifically, enhanced deterrence at sea could be achieved using long-range unmanned aerial systems such as US-made Gray Eagle strike drones, recently promised to Kyiv. The advanced drones, to be commanded by Ukrainians but operated remotely by contractors, carry Hellfire missiles and would enable Ukraine “to detect, track and locate Russian surface ships and if necessary sink them”, Schneider said.

Increasing the Russian warships’ sense of vulnerability from the air could be enough to break the blockade without resorting to offensive action, Clark said. More sophisticated UAV capabilities could also reduce the chances of surface clashes with western escort vessels. The Black Sea fleet’s Kilo-class submarines might be similarly deterred by provision of anti-submarine warfare technology.

To work, such kinetic solutions require a degree of political courage, imagination and determination so far lacking in the White House and western capitals, as symbolised by last-minute Pentagon delays in delivering Gray Eagle drones. That has to change. Putin’s starvation war is his new Holodomor for the world. The Nato and G7 summiteers must sink his blockade and send him to the bottom. If they truly want to, they can.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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