May 31

By Paul D. Shinkman

The Pentagon on Thursday blasted Russia for “weaponizing food” following growing criticism in the West that Moscow’s blockades of grain and other exports from Ukraine – the breadbasket of Europe — have forced a burgeoning global crisis.

“This is just another part of a brutal way of prosecuting a completely unprovoked war,” outgoing Defense Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Thursday. “Now they’re using economic tools as weapons. They’re weaponizing food. They’re weaponizing economic assistance.

“I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by that since they’ve weaponized everything else, including lives and information,” he added.

Kirby spoke in response to reports earlier in the day that as much as 20 million tons of grain is trapped inside Ukraine – the world’s fifth-largest producer of wheat – as Russian naval blockades continue to shut down any commerce through the strategic port city of Odessa.

Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the nominee to become the top U.S. general for operations in Europe, told Congress earlier on Thursday that African countries have become particularly hard-hit by the sudden stoppage.

“I was recently in Kenya, and there was a significant impact there already. We know that in other countries such as Tunisia, the prices have skyrocketed for basic foodstuffs. So there is food insecurity in Africa that is being provoked by the shortage of grain,” Cavoli, currently the Army’s top officer for Europe and Africa, told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his nomination hearing to become NATO supreme allied commander and the commander of U.S. European Command.

Several European powers including Germany have mobilized their land-based networks to help move the grain out of Ukraine – a move the German national railroad agency has begun calling the Berlin Train Lift as a reference to the early Cold War effort to defeat a Soviet blockade of the divided German capital.

Yet analysts believe the capacity to move the food by ground could never match the scale of the sea routes that Russia has shut down.

Russia, perhaps predictably, has deflected all blame for the burgeoning crisis despite claims last week from Secretary of State Antony Blinken it is holding the global food supply “hostage” until its Western foes meet its demands in Ukraine.

“We categorically reject these accusations and, on the contrary, accuse the Western countries of taking a number of illegal actions that led to this blockade,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters earlier on Thursday.

Peskov implied that Western sanctions against Russia had somehow shut down grain flows out of Ukraine, but offered few details to back up this assertion.

“They should cancel those illegal decisions that prevent the charter of ships, the export of grain, and so on,” he said, according to a translation of his remarks.

Several senators observed the latest crisis comes on the 90th anniversary of similar tactics employed by then-Soviet leader Joseph Stalin against Ukraine in an invasion known as the Holodomor.

“Millions of Ukrainians lost their lives in a horrific famine that was the direct result of Joseph Stalin’s cruelty,” Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said in a statement with several other lawmakers accompanying a resolution designating May 28 as World Hunger Day. “Ninety years later, Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war in Ukraine is impacting tens of millions and fanning the flames of food insecurity around the world. We need to reaffirm our commitment to fighting world hunger and hold Russia accountable for making the food insecurity crisis even worse.”