The war in Ukraine has demonstrated how international efforts to counter Russia are severely hamstrung by an uncomfortable reality: Isolating the Kremlin comes with a cost in the form of massive risks to global food security.
The sanctions regime against Russia has disrupted the food supply chain. As the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II rages — and as it likely will for at least several more months — there is an urgency to minimise its effects on the planet’s nutritional needs.
Moscow is trying to leverage this mounting crisis as a way around the economic pressure designed to compel it to end its assault on Ukraine, which along with Russia, is among the world’s biggest suppliers of grains and edible oils.
In response, Western decision-makers must craft policies that can achieve both imperatives: countering Russian aggression and preventing a global food crisis. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
Russian fertilisers — vital to farming operations in different parts of the world — could hold the key.
Sure, there’s already a Turkish-mediated deal between Russia and Ukraine in place since late July, to allow for grain shipments through the Black Sea. The agreement calls on both Moscow and Kyiv not to attack vessels ferrying much-needed grain supplies out of the war zone. However, with Russia trying to consolidate its hold over eastern and southern Ukraine, and the western-backed government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv determined to force the invader’s armies to withdraw from occupied territories, continued access to one of the world’s breadbaskets is at risk.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has exacerbated a pre-existing situation where the global economy has been impacted by other conflicts, climate change, rising energy costs, and most significantly, the COVID-19 pandemic. High energy prices increased fertiliser costs, and the war and sanctions jeopardised the supply chain.
To avoid a major global conflict and simultaneously prevent Russia from destroying Ukraine’s sovereignty, the United States and its allies and partners have relied heavily on economic and financial warfare to try and get Moscow to bend.
However, the Kremlin has responded by weaponising its own grain supply and that of Ukraine. While Russia may not achieve its military objectives and will face mounting financial stress, it can still spread that pain across the globe. Food shortages in the developing world and resulting political instability in the Middle East and North Africa could cause millions of migrants to make the perilous journey to Europe as they did during the Arab Spring and the wars in Iraq and Syria. That in turn could destabilise Europe politically, with the far right channeling anti-immigrant sentiment to challenge mainstream parties.
Like energy, food is a loaded gun the Kremlin believes it is holding to the West’s head. Yet, as with oil and gas, a deft balancing act can help the international community sustain the pressure on Moscow without that leading to malnutrition, famine, mass migration and a humanitarian disaster.
Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas supplies has meant that the continent has had to gradually wean itself off that addiction over recent months, giving the Kremlin the opportunity to threaten to stop energy exports unless sanctions are withdrawn.
However, while finding alternative sources of energy is a long-term endeavour, securing more grain from other food-producing nations to try and reduce Russia’s leverage can be relatively easier. What’s critical for that is the continuing flow of Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian fertilisers to increase crop yields around the world.
Russia, a major fertiliser exporter, accounts for 23 percent of the world’s ammonia, 21 percent of potash, 14 percent of urea and 10 percent of phosphate. These chemicals have the potential to increase international grain production manifold; as much as 100 million tonnes of wheat or 400 million tonnes of corn per annum, based on calculations that account for global food consumption levels and the amount that fertilisers contribute to them.
While officially fertilisers are not banned, sanctions on people connected to Russian fertiliser firms, hurdles in getting payments cleared and transportation-related obstacles represent impediments in the path of this strategy.
Adjusting the highly targeted sanctions regime against Russia to allow fertilisers to flow better won’t help Moscow much. Russia’s revenue from fertiliser exports in 2021 was around $12.5bn. That’s just change compared to the Kremlin’s expected earnings from hydrocarbon exports this year: around $337bn. The world, on the other hand, will gain immensely if farmers around the world can access these fertilisers, produce food and thereby also remove one weapon from the Kremlin’s armoury.
Strategy and policy are about trade-offs. The cost of countering an adversary is not the creation of grave crises far away from the battlefield. We should avoid causing massive food insecurity around the globe. If the world is united on squeezing Russian oil and gas exports, the sand in Moscow’s hourglass will run out faster and the end of the Ukrainian tragedy will get closer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.