Putin is playing a game of food blackmail. The West can’t let him win

Russia's attacks Tuesday destroyed most storage facilities for sunflower oil and grain. Putin's message: If the world doesn’t pay his price, he is willing to starve poor nations.

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Columnists

July 21, 2023 - 5:28 PM

Ukrainian rescuers work at a destroyed administrative building after a missile strike in the center of Odesa on July 20, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

ODESA, Ukraine — One year ago, just as I arrived in this historic port city, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to stop blockading Ukraine’s grain exports and fueling a famine in Africa and the Middle East.

The day after signing the U.N.-brokered deal, Russians shelled Odesa’s port facilities, as if to warn: “Don’t think this deal protects you.”

Exactly one year later, I returned to Odesa just as Russia pulled out of the deal, once again threatening global food supplies. Putin is playing a game of food blackmail, trying to get Western countries to loosen sanctions on certain Russian banks if they want the Ukrainian grain to start flowing again. Canada rightly called the renewed blockade “the weaponization of hunger by the Russian Federation.”

As I wrote back then, and reemphasize now, if any Western leaders still nurse fantasies about talks with Putin to end his war on Ukraine, his disdain for the grain deal proves they are fools.

And once again, Putin’s hunger games are reinforced with missiles. Tuesday’s deafening attack in the middle of the night with drones and cruise missiles — the harshest on Odesa since the war began — destroyed most storage facilities for sunflower oil and some grain silos. One civilian building hit by flak from the shot-down missiles was near my interpreter’s apartment.

Locals were warned that more missile attacks were expected Wednesday evening.

Russia claimed the strikes were a response to Ukraine’s sea-drone attack Monday on the Kerch bridge connecting Russia to the occupied Crimea Peninsula. Don’t believe it.

Putin is sending two messages: First, if the world doesn’t pay his price, he is willing to starve poor nations. Second, if he is not permitted to control Odesa, he is willing to destroy it — and damn any repercussions to a grain-hungry world.

For many years, the imperial-minded Putin has been obsessed with Odesa because it was founded in the late 18th century by Russian empress Catherine the Great, who is one of his role models.

However, Ukraine’s largest port was never really an ethnic Russian city. Its harbor was built by a Spaniard, its first governor was a French aristocrat, and its longtime position as an international trade center produced a diverse population. Before World War II, about 30% of Odesans were Jewish. Today, it is flooded with refugees from Russian attacks on eastern cities and towns and the horrific flooding caused by Moscow’s criminal destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River.

Although the city has been battered, it has kept its special spirit, as I saw when roaming the streets on the day the grain deal died. Mothers and children still eat ice cream by the small pool in the city park, young women parade their chic fashions, and the elderly watch the young. But the city is strangely quiet. The tourists are gone, and many residents have fled.

Odesa is a port city. It cannot live, nor can the country’s farmers continue to plant its famed grains and sunflowers, if the Russian blockade is maintained. Ukraine will be virtually landlocked, its economy permanently undermined.

Yet the Russian Black Sea fleet has effectively taken over control of the southern Black Sea and the connected Sea of Azov, blocking not only Ukrainian grain but other key exports. Seven countries border the Black Sea — including NATO members Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria — and Russia’s militarization of the sea is illegal under international law.

Amazingly, NATO nations, including the United States, have let Russia get away with this takeover. China’s Xi Jinping, who is trying to do the same with the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, is watching closely. He is waiting to see if the West, and the United Nations, will bow to Putin’s food blackmail and ease sanctions to reinstate the grain deal.

As I walked on a breakwater looking out at the Black Sea with Oleksii Goncharenko, a member of the Ukrainian parliament from Odesa, I asked him how he thought NATO nations should respond to Russia’s actions.

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