Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 25 July 2022


Putin’s attack on the grain deal was despicable. It also shows he’s desperate

For the deal to work and global food supplies to get moving again, Ukraine’s ports and ships need Nato protection

Ukraine: Russian missile strike hits main port of Odesa – video

Over the weekend, Russia signed a deal with Ukraine to allow grain exports to resume from three Ukrainian ports, thereby easing the global food crisis. Before the ink was dry, Russian forces fired precision missiles into the port of Odesa as grain was being readied for export.

This is clearly the behaviour of a tyrannical despot, one whose word cannot be trusted. But it may also be an act of desperation: Richard Moore, the head of MI6, told a US security conference last week that the Russian army is about to “run out of steam”.

The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has approached the conflict as though it were a second world war tank battle – and, unsurprisingly, his 20th-century tactics are not standing up to 21st-century weaponry. But we know from the Russian playbook in Syria that when the conventional does not work, Putin is quick to turn to the unconventional. In Syria, this meant attacking hospitals and schools, denying aid and, ultimately, using chemical weapons. In Ukraine, another Russian war crime is about to happen in plain sight, even after the grain deal: the weaponisation of food and fuel. If we allow this to happen, it is not such a large step to chemical, biological or nuclear warfare, all of which Russia has already threatened.

The weaponisation of food has already forced up prices for those who can least afford it in Africa and Asia, putting millions at the threat of starvation. The grain deal, brokered by Nato member Turkey, should allow food from Ukraine to reach these countries, but any guarantees of safety for the ships transporting it– especially in the wake of Russia’s attack on Odesa this weekend – should be taken with a pinch of salt.

As soon as these ships get into international waters off the coast of Odesa, they should be protected by Nato fighter jets. The Russian air force has proved scant match for ageing Ukrainian jets, and it will be even less of a match for state-of-the-art Nato ones. The deal also involves lifting some sanctions against Russia, allowing it to generate huge amounts of revenue by selling its own grain and fertilisers on the world markets. This will, of course, allow Putin to rebuild his beleaguered army.

The Ukraine crisis is also one of the things responsible for creating rampant inflation in the UK and elsewhere, contributing to the cost of living crisis. Helping Ukraine defeat Russia is the quickest way to get economies back on track. If this means putting boots on the ground, ships in the sea or planes in the air, then so be it, if it ensures Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine do not also affect the most in need around the globe. There are many war crimes being committed in Ukraine by Russian forces and, as the UN appears powerless or unwilling to act, Nato must.

In Ukraine, as in Syria, Putin appears to have no concern about collateral damage or the rules of war and appears to favour directly targeting civilians as the quickest way to strategic victory. Unfortunately for him, the Ukrainian people have shown that they have the stomach for this fight – Nato must match their bravery and back them to the hilt. We cannot forget that our failure to act in Syria, when up to 1,500 civilians were killed with the nerve agent sarin, no doubt emboldened Putin to invade Ukraine.

Putin is losing in all aspects and on all fronts of this war, and we must help Ukraine to victory at all costs. Last weekend’s events confirm- – if further confirmation were needed – that Putin cannot be trusted. In order for much-needed food to get to those who most need it, Nato must get directly involved to protect its passage through the Black Sea.

  • Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a chemical and biological weapons expert and a fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge

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