NAIROBI, Kenya — Russia has bombed, blocked and looted Ukraine’s grain production capacity, which accounts for a tenth of global wheat exports.
Now the United States has warned that the Kremlin is trying to capitalize on that looting by selling stolen wheat to drought-stricken countries in Africa, some of which are facing possible famine.
In mid-May, the United States sent a warning to 14 countries, mostly in Africa, that Russian freighters were leaving ports near Ukraine laden with what a State Department cable described as “stolen Ukrainian grain.” The cable, identified by the name three Russian freighters, was suspected of carrying the cable.
The US warning about the grain has only exacerbated the dilemma for African nations, many already feeling trapped between East and West as they may face a difficult choice between taking advantage of potential war crimes and the dismay of a powerful Western ally on the one hand. , and, on the other, refusing cheap food at a time when wheat prices are skyrocketing and hundreds of thousands of people are starving.
Washington’s alarm bell reinforced the Ukrainian government’s allegations that Russia has stolen up to 500,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat, worth $100 million, since the Russian invasion in February. Much of it has been trucked to ports in Russian-controlled Crimea and then transferred to ships, including some under Western sanctions, Ukrainian officials say.
On Friday, the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, met President Vladimir V. Putin in Russia in an effort to secure the country’s grain supply.
Critics said the trip, in which Mr Sall referred to his “dear friend Vladimir”, played directly into Mr Putin’s hands by offering him yet another tool to sow divisiveness in the international response to his brutal attack on Ukraine. .
But many African countries are already ambivalent about the punitive Western campaign of sanctions against Russia, partly because of their reliance on Russian arms sales, lingering Cold War sympathies and perceptions of Western double standards.
In addition, the continent is suffering badly.
Russia and Ukraine normally supply about 40 percent of wheat needs in Africa, where grain prices have risen 23 percent in the past year, the United Nations said. According to the United Nations, a devastating drought in the Horn of Africa has left 17 million people hungry, mostly in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. More than 200,000 people in Somalia are on the brink of famine.
Faced with such an urgent need, many African countries are unlikely to hesitate to buy grain supplied by Russia, no matter where it comes from, said Hassan Khannenje, director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research organization in Kenya.
“This is not a dilemma,” said Mr. Khannenje. “Africans don’t care where they get their food from, and if anyone is going to moralize about that, they’re wrong.”
“The need for food is so great,” he added, “that it’s not something they need to discuss.”
Ukrainian officials said the solution to Africa’s food problem is greater global pressure to end the war, not the purchase of looted grain. There is an “easy answer,” said Taras Vysotsky, Ukraine’s deputy minister of agriculture: “Stop the fighting.”
Mr Vysotsky and other Ukrainian ministers have accused Russia for months of stealing grain from the territories it occupies in the country’s southern granary. Much of it comes from storage elevators in occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhya, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they say.
“There is nothing left to steal,” Mr. Vysotsky said in an interview.
The first reports of grain looting came in mid-March. Commentators from Russian state television stations have since bragged openly about the seizures, saying Russia plans to go through with it.
The Russians also stole an estimated $15 million to $20 million worth of farm equipment, Mr. Vysotsky said.
Much of the looted grain ends up in ports like Sevastopol in the Crimean peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014, according to Ukrainian officials.
End of April, video surfaced of columns of covered trucks driving what Ukrainian officials said was trapped grain. In an analysis of the video, DailyExpertNews confirmed that the video was shot in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, showing the convoy traveling southwest on a main road into Crimea.
At least 10 boats have exported stolen grain, mainly wheat, through the port of Sevastopol since late February, according to Ukrainians tracking the shipments on the SeaKrime project of the open-source research website Myrotvorets.
Naval tracking websites and experts monitoring the ships said the ships, some of which have been under U.S. sanctions since April, often turn off their transponders until they are at sea, likely to hide their port of departure. But they still appear on satellite images or are photographed by spotters on the ground.
In the past month, the three Russian ships identified in the Foreign Ministry cable as suspected carriers of stolen Ukrainian grain – the Matros Koshka, Matros Pozynich and Mikhail Nenashev – sailed between the Kerch Strait, which connects Crimea and Russia. separates, and several ports in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Sometimes they docked in Turkey or Syria; other times, according to shipping traffic websites, they turned off their transponders while crossing the Mediterranean, possibly to hide their final destination.
Two US officials confirmed the contents of the cable, which was sent to 14 countries on May 16, mainly in North and East Africa, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
Determining the origin of a grain shipment is not easy, but could be an indication if Russia sold it at a steep discount, a US official said.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
In an email, a Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to comment on the content of the cable, but pointed to Ukrainian reports of widespread grain theft, as well as “numerous testimonies from Ukrainian farmers and documentary evidence that Russia’s theft of Ukrainian grain.”
“The United States is working with other countries to prevent the sale of grain believed to have been stolen from Ukraine,” the spokesman said.
Several foreign officials said the United States had asked them to ensure their country would not buy stolen Ukrainian grain, in a spirit of cooperation and not coercion. In Pakistan, which is considering buying two million tons of wheat from Russia, a senior foreign ministry official said the Americans emphasized Pakistan’s sovereignty when they asked for help.
Turkey is a focus of efforts to track down stolen Ukrainian grain because Russian ships leaving Crimea usually pass through Turkish waters. On Friday, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey called on authorities to investigate the source of grain transported through Russia.
A spokesman for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, a spokesman for the National Security Council said the United States had information that Russian troops regularly damage facilities used to store grain in eastern Ukraine.
In addition, a Russian naval blockade has prevented Ukraine from exporting the wheat it still has. Ukrainian officials say about 20 million tons of grain are waiting for export at the Ukrainian port of Odessa.
The National Security Council issued a declassified map showing clusters of Russian warships in the Black Sea south of Odessa, preventing Ukrainian cargo ships from leaving.
For many Ukrainians, the theft of the grain — and its illegal export — is a reminder of the traumatic famine of 1932-33 when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian peasants had their grain expropriated. Four million people died during the famine known as the Holodomor.
During the crisis in Ukraine, many African countries have felt treated as an afterthought, caught between foreign powers embroiled in a new round of Cold War-style rivalry. Over the weekend, several people declined to discuss the US alarm over stolen Ukrainian grain.
Macharia Kamau, the chief secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied that Kenya had received any message. “Why should they warn us at all?” he texted. “Why would someone buy something looted? This sounds like a propaganda ploy.”
Mindi Kasiga, a spokeswoman for Tanzania’s foreign ministry, said her country’s stance “has always been neutral”.
In much of Africa, any Western pressure on grain supplied by Russia is likely to backfire, said the analyst, Mr Khannenje, unless the West could provide a means to bridge the wheat shortage.
“If the West can provide alternatives, countries will listen,” he said. “But being hysterical will only push them further into the arms of Russia.”
Declan Walsh reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Valerie Hopkins from Kiev, Ukraine.
Reporting contributed by Michael D. Shear and Edward Won in Washington; Abdi Latif Dahiru in Nairobi, Kenya; Megan Special in London; Salman Masood in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Safak Timur in Istanbul.