Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

To Avert a Global Food Crisis, Arm Ukraine

Russia’s proposed solutions are disingenuous. Only advanced Western weapons can end the Black Sea blockade.

By , a retired Ukrainian Navy captain with more than 35 years of service at sea and ashore, and , the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine.
Local officials and Ukrainian soldiers inspect a wheat grain warehouse.
Local officials and Ukrainian soldiers inspect a wheat grain warehouse.
Local officials and Ukrainian soldiers inspect a wheat grain warehouse shelled by Russian forces near the front lines of Kherson Oblast in Novovorontsovka, Ukraine, on May 6. John Moore/Getty Images

Due to the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s sea ports, the global food market is on the edge of collapse and a step away from catastrophic global hunger. These days, there is plenty of discussion about how to deliver Ukrainian grain to other countries.

However, it is cheaper and more effective for U.S. taxpayers to provide Ukraine with the necessary weapons to rapidly unblock Ukraine’s Black Sea ports rather than face high inflation in the United States and hunger riots in various countries in Asia and Africa, which could be triggered by disruptions in the global food supply chain. Moreover, the U.S. Congress has already allocated funds for weapons for Ukraine; the question is whether these funds will be used on the weapons Ukraine actually needs and if Ukraine will get them in time.

Ukraine, long known as the world’s breadbasket, is capable of feeding 400 million people in addition to its own population. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, roughly every second or third piece of bread in Africa and the Middle East was produced from Ukrainian wheat. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil.

Due to the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s sea ports, the global food market is on the edge of collapse and a step away from catastrophic global hunger. These days, there is plenty of discussion about how to deliver Ukrainian grain to other countries.

However, it is cheaper and more effective for U.S. taxpayers to provide Ukraine with the necessary weapons to rapidly unblock Ukraine’s Black Sea ports rather than face high inflation in the United States and hunger riots in various countries in Asia and Africa, which could be triggered by disruptions in the global food supply chain. Moreover, the U.S. Congress has already allocated funds for weapons for Ukraine; the question is whether these funds will be used on the weapons Ukraine actually needs and if Ukraine will get them in time.

Ukraine, long known as the world’s breadbasket, is capable of feeding 400 million people in addition to its own population. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, roughly every second or third piece of bread in Africa and the Middle East was produced from Ukrainian wheat. Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil, and rapeseed oil.

There is no sustainable way to close the global food gap if Ukraine is cut out of the global food supply chain.

There is no sustainable way to close the global food gap if Ukraine is cut out of the global food supply chain. U.S. producers of baby formula are already experiencing the effects of a shortage of Ukrainian sunflower oil. Ukraine is normally responsible for almost 50 percent of the world’s sunflower oil exports. This has a direct effect on U.S. families, as the shortage is driving up the cost and complexity of manufacturing the formula they need to feed their babies.

Despite the war, Ukrainian farmers still managed to plant nearly 70 percent of their spring crops. However, they won’t be able to store and transport their whole harvest in the fall. While the world will keep overpaying for food and millions of people from poor countries will be suffering from undernutrition by September, Ukraine will likely have tens of millions of tons of much-needed grain trapped inside the country.

The reason for this will be the 20 Russian missile warships in the Black Sea and their coastal anti-ship systems that are stationed in occupied Crimea as well as the danger of naval mines. Sea mines were installed by Ukraine to defend its coast from Russian amphibious landing operations in national territorial waters from Odesa to Ochakiv. Also, Russia secretly installed mines in Ukrainian territorial waters. These three threats together are blocking all of Ukraine’s unoccupied seaports: Odesa, Chornomorsk, Pivdennyi, and Ochakiv.

Before the war, Ukraine exported 5 to 6 million tons of grain per month through its sea ports, which accounts for 95 percent of Ukrainian food exports. Since the invasion, the Ukrainian government, with support from partner countries, managed to set up alternative railway and truck routes for exporting grains. However, their transport capacity is only up to 1.5 million tons per month.

These routes are also much more expensive, and thus, the cost for exported Ukrainian grain has increased at least fivefold—directly affecting world food prices. Current stocks of grains stored for export from Ukraine are about 20 million tons. It will take from 14 months to two years to export this stockpile using available overland routes.

There will be no more storage available in Ukraine for the crops that will be harvested in June, and as a result, all of this food could go to waste. Unless things change, farmers will likely not plant crops in the autumn of 2022 and the spring of 2023, as Russia’s blockade of Black Sea ports makes it impossible for them to sell their products. Lack of export routes means lack of revenues for farmers to finance new production; therefore, there is no economic incentive to keep planting. The point of no return for Ukrainian farmers is August, the time when the farming cycle for the crop of 2023 should begin.

If they do not plant, it will cause a deepening of the world food crisis, to say nothing of devastating economic consequences for Ukraine. Anticipating higher global prices, more and more countries are putting restrictions on their food exports. Restrictions are imposed to establish self-sufficiency as well as to protect the internal market from high prices. However, many countries cannot become self-sufficient because of lack of resources or capacity to increase production; therefore, export controls are imposed to guarantee minimal staple food reserves. After a year, the global food trade might effectively end altogether.


The only sustainable solution to dealing with the global food crisis is to unblock Ukraine’s sea ports. Western leaders have limited options: They could seek to convince Russia to unblock the ports through diplomatic negotiations. They could send a humanitarian convoy or impose a partial no-fly zone over certain territories around the Black Sea and the Ukrainian coast to protect vessels from Russian missiles. Or they could arm Ukraine with advanced NATO heavy weaponry to enable the Ukrainian armed forces to fend off the threat from Russian warships.

The first option has little chance of succeeding. Russia already offered to unblock the ports in exchange for the West lifting sanctions, which is a nonstarter as it will open the door for Russia to get money and critical components to replenish its military reserves and build more missiles to continue destroying Ukraine and blockading Ukraine’s ports in the future.

Lifting sanctions on Russia should be considered only after it gives up all occupied Ukrainian territory and pays reparations for the damages and atrocities committed in Ukraine. Diplomatic pressure on Russia failed to prevent a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and we believe it will also fail to convince Russia to unblock Ukrainian Black Sea ports. It is simply naive to consider a diplomatic resolution of the crisis without including a strong military component to enforce that resolution.

Sending a humanitarian convoy of military ships to Ukraine by a coalition of willing states to free the trapped food supplies is an option that was suggested by Lithuania and publicly supported by the United Kingdom. These ships would escort commercial vessels from Odesa’s ports and protect the Ukrainian coast from missile threats coming from Russian warships and the Crimean coast. So far, none of the buyers of Ukrainian grain have indicated their interest in the convoy. Most of those countries just do not have a fleet capable of such operations.

Egypt is the only Mediterranean country with the necessary ships, but its close economic and military ties with Russia make Egypt’s participation highly unlikely. Turkey didn’t comment on any proposals of a “coalition convoy.” Instead, together with Russia, it proposed that only Turkish and Russian ships accompany the merchant ships, which is understandably unacceptable to Ukraine as there are no guarantees this scenario won’t lead to further military invasion.

Establishing a partial NATO no-fly zone or a so-called NATO humanitarian corridor over Ukrainian Black Sea ports and sea routes for commercial vessels should also be a part of any “convoy” solution. It also requires Russia’s agreement to adhere to the conditions of a humanitarian convoy.

If Russia violates the conditions, there should be immediate consequences. Thus, it requires leading NATO countries, especially the United States, to stop fearing that Russia might react with nuclear weapons against moves intended to help feed the world. For Ukraine, a partial no-fly zone would guarantee that after the demining of the Black Sea and opening routes to the ports, Russia cannot conduct air assaults on port infrastructure and merchant ships or amphibious military operations.

Finally, the United States and its allies could speed up the provision of advanced heavy NATO-standard weapons to Ukraine, including anti-ship missiles and air defense systems. The purpose of these weapons is to deter and deny the Russian fleet from entering Ukraine’s territorial waters and thus free passage for civilian ships. Russia can operate up to 60 warships, submarines, and boats in the Black Sea.

At least half of this force could be involved in blocking Ukrainian ports and causing a devastating global food crisis, which will impact hundreds of millions of people and cost hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives. Russia also has the capability to fire missiles from the coast of Crimea at merchant ships.

The Ukrainian armed forces don’t have the capacity to deny the deployment of enemy warships or prevent them from attacking ships sailing to or from the Ukrainian coast.

The Ukrainian armed forces successfully sank the Moskva flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet with Ukrainian-built Neptune anti-ship missiles. It caused the Russian fleet to move farther off the Ukrainian coast.

However, the Ukrainian armed forces don’t have the capacity to deny the deployment of enemy warships or prevent them from attacking ships sailing to or from the Ukrainian coast. They also cannot protect the air over Odesa’s coast from cruise missiles fired from Crimea. To secure this area, the Ukrainian armed forces need a combination of weapons, specifically at least 100 long-range anti-ship missiles and significantly improved air defense systems.

The Ukrainian Navy has to be armed with coastal batteries of anti-ship missiles like Naval Strike Missiles (NSM) or Harpoon systems. Denmark pledged to send Harpoons; however, it is not clear how many and when these weapons could be delivered.

Also, it is critical to put anti-ship missiles aboard the U.S.-made ships like the Mark VI, Island-class patrol boat and the British-designed P50-U boats. In a later phase, the Ukrainian Navy may be provided with a few littoral combat ships (Freedom-class), which the U.S. Navy is scheduled to scrap. These ships can operate far away from the Ukrainian coast and help secure the safe passage of commercial ships all the way across the Black Sea.

Fighter jets like the F-16 should also be an important element of Black Sea port security, as these planes are capable of launching anti-ship missiles and fending off Russian air attacks on commercial vessels. Ukraine requested modern fighter jets; however, the U.S. government did not yet approve the transfer of this equipment, and training for Ukrainian pilots and maintenance officers has not started yet.

Air defense systems like Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems are crucially important equipment for unblocking ports, as they could be used to protect the coast from air attacks launched from Crimea.

Finally, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) armed with long-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems could be also used by the Ukrainian armed forces to target Russian warships in Ukrainian waters. Ukraine has emphasized the urgency of receiving this system for the current battlefield situation at the highest possible level. The White House has announced a decision to provide Ukraine with the first four HIMARS; however, these systems won’t be equipped with long-range missiles capable of reaching more than 45 miles.

Within the $40 billion package of Ukraine aid supported by Congress and signed by U.S. President Joe Biden, more than $5 billion will be used to address the global food crisis. About $15 billion will be spent on the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. This is a significant budget, and if used at least in part on the equipment mentioned above, it could strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces’ military capacity enough to unblock the Black Sea ports, allowing Ukrainian grain exports to feed the world and head off a looming global crisis.

Andriy Ryzhenko is a retired Ukrainian Navy captain with more than 35 years of service at sea and ashore.

Daria Kaleniuk is the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. Twitter: @dkaleniuk

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.
U.S. President Joe Biden listens to remarks in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on May 19.

Russia’s Defeat Would Be America’s Problem

Victory in Ukraine could easily mean hubris in Washington.

Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.
Russian and Belarusian troops take part in joint military exercises.

Russia’s Stripped Its Western Borders to Feed the Fight in Ukraine

But Finland and the Baltic states are still leery of Moscow’s long-term designs.

Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.
Electricity pylons are shown under cloudy skies during rainfall near Romanel-sur-Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sept. 15.

Europe’s Energy Crisis Is Destroying the Multipolar World

The EU and Russia are losing their competitive edge. That leaves the United States and China to duke it out.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announces new European Union energy policies at the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels, on Sept. 7.

With Winter Coming, Europe Is Walking Off a Cliff

Europeans won’t escape their energy crisis as long as ideology trumps basic math.