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Moscow "Weaponizing" Food: Analysts

Halimo Hersi, 42, right, buys wheat flour from a shopkeeper in the Hamar-Weyne market in the capital Mogadishu, Somalia Thursday, May 26, 2022. Families across Africa are paying about 45% more for wheat flour as Russia's war in Ukraine blocks exports from the Black Sea.

As Africa looks to Moscow for foods such as wheat, corn, sunflower oil, and fertilizer, analysts have described Russia's pressure as an attempt to weaponize food, "blackmailing'' the continent to be friendly to it in order to eat.

When Russia began its attack on Ukraine in February, one of its first objectives was to close access to the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea to Ukraine, which borders both waters.

That effort by Moscow, along with strong sanctions imposed by western nations against Russia, effectively stopped the normal shipment of grain and other foodstuffs to Africa.

For people on the continent, the impact was twofold: the price of food commodities soared, and these essentials also became more scarce - both heightening food insecurity.

Akinola Adeoye at the University of Johannesburg described Moscow's attempt at ''using food diplomacy to establish some international legitimacy'' as a ''blackmail."

"There's an African adage that says that ''use what you have to get what you want''. Russia is using food to call for favors from African leaders. Africa gets about 40% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. This is actually an indictment on African leaders'', he told VOA.

Adeoye noted that threats of legitimacy on the part of African leaders may have forced a meeting between the African Union chair, Macky Sall, with Vladimir Putin earlier this month as skyrocketing food prices pile pressure on states on the continent.

''We don't know about the conditions set by Moscow to release food to Africans following (Macky Sall's) meeting. Africa should be careful about the kind of deal they'll strike with Russia, and the continent should not sell its soul in exchange for food.'' He added that African governments should begin to think deeply about their dependence on Europe and others for sustenance.''

Caitlin Welsh, Director of Global Food Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told VOA that comments by senior Russian officials that food is a ''silent weapon'' in the conflict are a clear indication of Moscow's deliberate attempt to weaponize food against Africa.

''Russia understands the influence it wields through the exports of food. In fact, it was part of the reason that (Moscow) greatly increased grain production and exports throughout the century. At the beginning of the century, they were net food importers and by 2017, they became the top exporter of wheat. So this is very deliberate on their part'', she said.

Welsh said it is clear that the greatest impact of the war on food security is the decrease in food exports from Ukraine. She asserts that Africa's turn over to Moscow for grain and other commodities is simply to look out for its people.

''If a (continent) that formerly relies on Ukraine for food is no longer able to do so, and has the opportunity to import food from Russia, it is going to consider its domestic food needs over its international political priorities. I don't consider that to be bowing before Moscow - it is taking care of the food and nutrition needs of citizens."

Welsh however said ''It's laughable that Moscow is trying to rebrand the story to be about a decrease in exports from Russia because the latter's exports have increased throughout this war'', she said.

However, Franklin Cudjoe at the Ghana-based Imani Center for Policy and Education told VOA that Africa's call on the West to desist from exerting pressure on Moscow by way of sanctions so it can feed its people cannot suggest that the Kremlin is weaponizing food.

''African leaders have been urging dialogue and diplomacy since the invasion in Ukraine. In the narrative, leaders have called on Russia to allow grain exports from Ukraine, while some (African countries) have remained non-aligned'', he said.

Cudjoe said the scarcity of food due to the war should be a wake-up call for African leaders to begin to build buffers in terms of food security. He said while African leaders call on the West to discontinue heavy sanctions on Moscow, they must also urge Russia to talk diplomacy.

Cudjoe added that ''African leaders should start investing in fertilizer plants to ensure that we're able to engage in productive agriculture to feed ourselves.''