The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s time to confront Putin’s destructive war on grain

Grain is loaded on a truck at the Mlybor flour mill facility in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, on May 24. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Amid Vladimir Putin’s war of atrocity against Ukraine, a senseless bloodletting and attempt to crush a nation, the Russian president also threatens to inflict hunger and food shortages far and wide. The time has come for the rest of the world to take concrete actions in response.

Ukraine is a major global supplier of wheat, sunflower seeds and grain used to feed animals. Russia has been blockading the export of grain from Ukraine’s major port in Odessa, systematically attacking and destroying grain storage facilities, and stealing grain, too. Mr. Putin is ruthlessly employing hunger and food insecurity as a war tactic, a perverse and brutal attempt to crush Ukraine’s spirit and blackmail the rest of the world. It has been suggested that to relieve the danger of famine and boost the world’s food supply, sanctions should be eased on Belarusian exports of potash, used for industrial fertilizer, or that a corridor for Ukraine exports be created through Belarus to Baltic ports. Sanctions on Belarus were the result of strongman Alexander Lukashenko stealing the 2020 presidential election and his repression of his nation’s democracy movement. To give Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko a break now because of a mess they created would be utterly misguided.

Instead, world leaders ought to hold Mr. Putin accountable for this looming disaster. Much of the globe depends on food traded across borders and impacted by rising prices. As David Beasley, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program, reminded us recently, the noose of rising prices will choke those countries that can least afford it and that had already been suffering the effects of scarcity, war, climate change, the aftershocks of pandemic and rising fuel prices. According to the Economist, the number of those with access to food so poor that their lives or livelihoods are at immediate risk — “acute food insecurity” — has risen from 108 million to 193 million over the past five years, and Mr. Putin’s war will send it even higher.

This is the time for affected countries to implore Mr. Putin to stop the madness. A host of nations in Africa, the Middle East and East Asia will feel the pinch of a food crisis. Egypt gets 85.6 percent of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi ought to knock on the Kremlin’s door. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been trying to negotiate an exit corridor for Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea and should keep at it. President Xi Jinping of China, which has warned of a bad winter wheat harvest, ought to tell his “good friend” Mr. Putin that spiking global hunger and famine right now will only make him more enemies.

Ukraine’s silos are full, and another harvest is nearing, but the critical port of Odessa is mined to prevent a Russian invasion, and Russia blockades the Black Sea. It would be tricky to create naval convoys to safely export the grain from Ukraine, but all options and routes ought to be examined. There are no easy answers, but the food security of millions of people is at stake, and a root cause of their misery is one man in the Kremlin.