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EU officials call Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s wheat a ‘war crime’

June 21, 2022, 8:21 PM UTC

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raged for more than 100 days, and apart from the 4,500 civilian deaths and 13 million people displaced, EU officials say that the consequences of blocked food exports from Ukraine could devastate millions of lives worldwide. 

The Russian army’s blockade of Ukrainian grain exports has amplified an existing global hunger crisis that, fueled by a prolonged drought, has already left people starving around the world, especially in highly vulnerable regions dependent on Russian and Ukrainian food imports like the Horn of Africa and the Sahel region. Despite pleas from the U.S., Europe, and international aid organizations to resume exports, Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far refused to do so, denying Russia’s role in what is fast becoming a global famine risk.

Putin’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the international food shortage, or allow exports to resume, received one of the strongest repudiations yet this week from European officials, who have branded the blockade a “war crime.”

“We call on Russia to deblockade the [Ukrainian] ports,” Josep Borrell, chief foreign policy officer of the European Union, said on Monday. “It is inconceivable; one cannot imagine that millions of tons of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world, people are suffering [from] hunger. This is a real war crime,” he added.

Borrell, who spoke to reporters in Luxembourg before a meeting between EU foreign ministers on the global food crisis, said that the world was risking a “great famine,” especially in vulnerable African countries, largely caused by Russia’s blockade and the effect this has had on raising global food and energy prices.

Global food prices are now up 15% over the past two months, and more than 80% higher than two years ago, according to the World Bank, in part because of restricted Ukrainian exports. The World Bank estimates that the war will raise food prices by as much as 20% over the rest of the year. 

But while the West has been united in its condemnation of the Russian blockade for causing the food crisis, Kremlin officials have claimed that Western sanctions on Russia are to blame.

“We are not the source of the problem,” Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters in May. “The source of the problem that leads to world hunger are those who imposed sanctions against us, and the sanctions themselves.”

While Western sanctions on Russia have been wide-reaching and are having a devastating effect on average Russian consumers, Borrell emphasized in his remarks on Monday that sanctions are not explicitly aimed at food products.

“Our sanctions don’t target food and don’t target fertilizers,” he said. “Economic actors have to know that these products from Russia are out of the scope of our sanctions.”

Borrell insisted that there are “no obstacles” to buying Russian food products, and that the only problem is the millions of tons of grain Russian ships are blocking from leaving Ukraine, possibly attempting to debunk efforts by Putin to place the blame for the food shortage on the West in vulnerable African countries. EU leaders already warned African nations earlier in June not to believe the “propaganda” and “complete misinformation from Russia’s side.”

Borrell added that he “hoped” the United Nations would soon be able to make progress on its efforts to negotiate lifting the blockade with Russia. Other European nations, including Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, and Romania, have been working to get Ukrainian grain out of the country by unencumbered rail and road, although infrastructure constraints make this process significantly less efficient than shipping.

Calls have been mounting in the West to designate Russia’s actions in Ukraine as war crimes. Both U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson have openly called Putin a “war criminal” and criticized some of the Russian army’s operations as tantamount to war crimes, while Borrell already described the attack on the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol as a “massive war crime” in March.

Ukrainian officials announced at the end of May that at least 15,000 potential war crimes perpetrated by Russia were actively being investigated, with 200 to 300 more reported daily, according to Iryna Venediktova, the country’s chief prosecutor.

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