Ukraine Accuses Russia of Playing ‘Hunger Games’ by Blocking Grain Shipments

( – United Nations envoys are working to end an effective Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports that is preventing the shipment of millions of tons of grain, contributing to an already precarious global food situation.

The grain is sitting in silos and on more than 80 ships that are unable to leave the Black Sea port of Odessa due, Ukraine says, to the presence of Russian warships.

Ukraine and Russia are both major suppliers of grain to some of the world’s least-developed nations. There are fears the crisis could spark famine, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where countries rely on Ukraine for most of their grain.

“Of great concern is the blockade of grain exports from Ukraine, on which the lives of millions of people depend, especially in the poorest countries,” Pope Francis said at the conclusion of his weekly audience in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday.

“Please do not use wheat, a staple food, as a weapon of war,” he appealed.


Russia disputes that it is preventing the food shipments from moving, blaming the situation on Ukrainian-laid sea mines.

Moscow also says the West should lift sanctions – imposed because of the invasion of Ukraine – which it says are deterring shipping companies from transporting Russian grain and fertilizer to world markets, adding to food shortages and price hikes.

In New York, U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said two U.N. teams were working “to help find a package deal involving the safe and secure export of Ukrainian-produced food through the Black Sea, along with unimpeded access of Russian food and fertilizers to global markets, especially in developing countries.”

The teams are led by U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development chief Rebeca Grynspan, he said, adding that the U.N. has “seen some progress, but we’re not there yet.”

Grynspan recently visited Moscow and then Washington to discuss the crisis with senior government officials.

“Russia plays hunger games with the world by blocking Ukrainian food exports with one hand and trying to shift the blame on Ukraine with the other,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba tweeted this week.

“Ukraine is working on an international U.N.-led operation with navies of partners ensuring a safe trade route with no security risks,” he added.

In a recent Bloomberg column retired U.S. Navy admiral and former NATO supreme allied commander James Stavridis said the blockade could be broken by a coalition of navies escorting merchant ships from Ukraine through the Black Sea. He likened the situation to the U.S. Navy escorting reflagged tankers through the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” in the 1980s.

Stavridis noted that NATO has a flotilla of minesweepers that could be used to clear mines placed by both Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Black Sea.

At the State Department on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said pre-existing conditions – related to the COVID pandemic and climate – have combined with the conflict to “create a perfect storm” of food insecurity.

“There are roughly 20 to 25 million tons of grain that are sitting in silos near … Odessa that can’t even be moved to ships, in part because there are ships at the Odessa port – about 85 of them – full of this grain and wheat that can’t move because of the Russian effective blockade of the ports.”

Blinken applauded U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres for “his efforts to see if he can find a way forward on this to allow the ships out, to end this blockade.”

While that work on ongoing, he said, “at the same time, we’re looking at every other possible route to get wheat, grains, other things out of Ukraine and onto world markets.”

On Russia’s claims that Western sanctions are impeding food deliveries, Blinken said that was simply not true.

Sanctions imposed by the U.S. and others have exemptions for food, fertilizer and seeds, as well as for services needed to facilitate the movement of food such as banking services.

Blinken said the U.S. was working to reassure countries that sanctions do not apply to food.

U.N. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said this week the U.S. was prepared to provide “comfort letters” to companies that were “nervous” of violating sanctions and as a result were holding back on shipping, or insuring shipments of, Russian grain and fertilizer.

‘No obstacles from our side’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday repeated the claims about sanctions impeding the export of Russian grain, and also reiterated Moscow’s stance on the blocked Ukrainian food shipments.

“As far as the Russian Federation is concerned, there are no problems with ensuring a sustainable supply of grain to world markets,” he said during a visit to Saudi Arabia. “The problem lies in the lack of free exit from Ukrainian ports through minefields laid by Ukrainian military personnel.”

He said Russia is discussing with Turkey proposals for Ankara to help with the demining of Black Sea waters.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed on Tuesday that Turkey was in talks with the Russians about establishing a safe “corridor” for the grain shipments. Lavrov plans to visit Turkey on June 8 for further discussions.

Turkey maintains relatively good ties with both Russia and Ukraine. It also has an important supervisory role in the Black Sea, overseeing passage into and out of the waterway under a 1936 treaty.

Lavrov also said in Riyadh that during Grynspan’s recent visit to Moscow, a senior Russian official had explained to the U.N. envoy “the logistics necessary to resolve this problem” of food shipments.

“There are no obstacles from our side,” he said. “They are either on the side of the Ukrainian authorities, or Western countries, covering up unacceptable and illegal actions of the Kyiv regime.”



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