Russia has bombed, blockaded and plundered the grain production capacity of Ukraine, which accounts for one-tenth of global wheat exports, resulting in dire forecasts of increased hunger and of spiking food prices around the world.
Now, the United States has warned that the Kremlin is trying to profit from that plunder by selling stolen wheat to drought-stricken countries in Africa, some facing possible famine.
In mid-May, the United States sent an alert to 14 countries, mostly in Africa, that Russian cargo vessels were leaving ports near Ukraine laden with what a State Department cable described as “stolen Ukrainian grain.” The cable identified by name three Russian cargo vessels it said were suspected of transporting it.
The American alert about the grain has only sharpened the quandary for African countries, many already feeling trapped between East and West, as they potentially face a hard choice between, on one hand, benefiting from possible war crimes and displeasing a powerful Western ally, and on the other, refusing cheap food at a time when wheat prices are soaring and hundreds of thousands of people are starving.
The alarm sounded by Washington reinforced Ukrainian government accusations that Russia has stolen up to 500,000 tons of Ukrainian wheat, worth $100 million, since Russia’s invasion in February. Much of it has been trucked to ports in Russia-controlled Crimea, then transferred to ships, including some under Western sanctions, Ukrainian officials say.
On Friday, the head of the African Union, President Macky Sall of Senegal, met in Russia with President Vladimir Putin, in an effort to secure grain supplies from the country.
Critics said the trip, during which Sall referred to his “dear friend Vladimir,” played straight into Putin’s hands by offering him yet another tool to leverage divisions in the international response to his brutal assault on Ukraine.
But many African nations are already ambivalent about the punishing Western campaign of sanctions against Russia for reasons that include their dependence on Russian arms sales, lingering Cold War-era sympathies and perceptions of Western double standards.
On top of that, the continent is suffering badly.
Russia and Ukraine normally supply about 40% of wheat needs in Africa, where prices for the grain have risen 23% in the past year, the United Nations says. In the Horn of Africa region, a devastating drought has left 17 million people hungry, mostly in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, according to the U.N. More than 200,000 people in Somalia are on the brink of famine.
Faced with such pressing need, many African countries are unlikely to hesitate before buying Russian-supplied grain, no matter where it comes from, said Hassan Khannenje, director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, a research body in Kenya.
“This is not a dilemma,” Khannenje said. “Africans don’t care where they get their food from, and if someone is going to moralize about that, they are mistaken.”
“The need for food is so severe,” he added, “that it’s not something they need to debate.”
Ukrainian officials said the solution to Africa’s food problem is greater global pressure to end the war, not purchases of looted grain. There is a “simple answer,” Taras Vysotsky, Ukraine’s deputy minister of agriculture, said: “Stop the fighting.”
Vysotsky and other Ukrainian ministers have been accusing Russia for months of stealing grain from the territories it occupies in the country’s southern breadbasket, described by one as “outright robbery.” Much of it has been taken from storage elevators in occupied parts of the Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they say.
“There is nothing left to steal,” Vysotsky said.
The first reports of grain plunder emerged in mid-March. Commentators on Russian state TV stations have since openly boasted about the seizures, saying that Russia intends to continue with them.
The Russians also stole an estimated $15 million to $20 million worth of agricultural machinery, Vysotsky said.
Much of the looted grain, according Ukrainian officials, ends up at ports such as Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia has occupied since 2014.
In late April, video surfaced of columns of covered trucks driving what Ukrainian officials said was captured grain. In an analysis of the video, The New York Times confirmed it was taken in the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, showing the convoy headed southwest on a main road toward Crimea.
At least 10 boats have exported stolen grain, mostly wheat, through Sevastopol’s port since late February, according to the Ukrainians who are tracking shipments on the SeaKrime project run by the open-source investigation website Myrotvorets.
Marine tracking websites, and experts who monitor the vessels, said the ships, some under US sanctions since April, often turn off their transponders until they are at sea, likely to hide their port of departure. But they still show up in satellite images or are photographed by spotters on the ground.
In the past month, the three Russian vessels identified in the State Department cable as suspected carriers of stolen Ukrainian grain – the Matros Koshka, Matros Pozynich and Mikhail Nenashev – traveled between the Straits of Kerch, which divide Crimea and Russia, and various ports in the eastern Mediterranean.
Sometimes they docked in Turkey or Syria; other times, according to websites that track marine traffic, they turned off their transponders while crossing the Mediterranean, possibly to hide their final destination.
Two US officials confirmed the contents of the cable, which was sent May 16 to 14 countries, mostly in northern and eastern Africa, as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Turkey.
Determining the provenance of a grain shipment is not straightforward, but one indication might be if Russia were selling it at a heavy discount, one US official said.
In an email, a State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the cable’s contents, but pointed to the Ukrainian reports of wholesale grain theft, as well as “numerous testimonies from Ukrainian farmers and documentary evidence showing Russia’s theft of Ukrainian grain.”
“The United States is working with other countries to prevent the sale of grain that has likely been stolen from Ukraine,” the spokesperson said.
Several foreign officials said the United States had asked them to ensure their country did not buy stolen Ukrainian grain, with the request made in a spirit of cooperation, not coercion. In Pakistan, which is considering buying 2 million tons of wheat from Russia, a senior foreign office official said the Americans stressed Pakistan’s sovereignty when they asked for help.
Turkey is a focus of the efforts to track stolen Ukrainian grain because Russian vessels leaving Crimea usually pass through Turkish waters. On Friday, Ukraine’s ambassador to Turkey called on the authorities to investigate the source of Russian-transported grain.
A spokesperson for Turkey’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said the United States had information that Russian forces had been regularly damaging facilities used to hold grain in eastern Ukraine.
On top of that, a Russian naval blockade has prevented Ukraine from exporting the wheat it still has. Ukrainian officials say about 20 million tons of grain are waiting for export in the Ukrainian-held port of Odesa.
The National Security Council provided a declassified map showing clusters of Russian warships in the Black Sea south of Odesa preventing Ukrainian cargo ships from leaving.
For many Ukrainians, the theft of the grain – and its unlawful export – recall the traumatic famine of 1932-33 when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and Ukrainian peasants had their grain expropriated. Four million people died, in the hunger known as the Holodomor.
Throughout the Ukraine crisis, many African countries have felt treated as an afterthought, caught between foreign powers engaged in a new round of Cold War-style rivalry. Over the weekend, several refused to discuss the US alert about stolen Ukrainian grain.
Macharia Kamau, the principal secretary at the Kenyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied Kenya had received any message. “Why would they need to warn us in the first place?” he texted. “Why would anyone buy looted anything? This sounds like a propaganda ploy.”
Mindi Kasiga, a spokesperson at Tanzania’s Foreign Ministry, said her country’s stance “has always been neutral.”
Across much of Africa, any Western pressure over Russian-supplied grain is likely to backfire, said Khannenje, the analyst, unless the West could offer a means of bridging the wheat shortfall.
“If the West can provide alternatives, countries will listen to that,” he said. “But being hysterical about it is only going to push them further into the arms of Russia.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.