US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of weaponising food and holding grain for millions of people around the world hostage to help “break the spirit of the Ukrainian people”.
He told a UN Security Council meeting called by the United States that the war has halted maritime trade in large areas of the Black Sea and made the region unsafe for navigation, trapping Ukrainian agricultural exports and jeopardising global food supplies.
Mr Blinken said the meeting, which he chaired, was taking place “at a moment of unprecedented global hunger” fueled by climate change and Covid-19 “and made even worse by conflict”.
Since Russia’s invasion on February 24, he said, its naval operations have sought to control access to the northwestern Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and to block Ukrainian ports which the United States assesses to be “a deliberate effort” to block safe passage and shut down shipping.
“As a result of the Russian government’s actions, some 20 million tonnes of grain sit unused in Ukrainian silos as global food supplies dwindle, prices skyrocket, causing more around the world to experience food insecurity,” Mr Blinken said.
Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia dismissed as “absolutely false” claims by the US and Western nations “that we want to starve everyone to death and that only you and Ukraine allegedly care about how to save the lives of the country”.
“You assert that allegedly we are preventing agricultural products from being taken out of Ukraine by sea,” he said.
“However, the truth is that it is Ukraine and not Russia that has blocked 75 vessels from 17 states in the ports of Nikolaev, Kherson, Chernomorsk, Mariupol, Ochakov, Odesa and Yuzhniy and has mined the waterways.”
Mr Nebenzia warned: “Unless this issue is resolved, we cannot speak of any opportunities to export Ukrainian grain by sea.”
He stressed that Russia remains “a responsible supplier of both food and energy”.
Mr Nebenzia said more than 10,000 sanctions on Russia have disrupted transportation routes, impeded movement of Russian vessels and banned them from entering ports, caused freight and insurance problems, restricted commercial transactions and created difficulties with banking transactions.
“If you do not want to lift your sanctions of choice, then why are you accusing us of causing this food crisis?” he asked.
“Why is it that as a result of your irresponsible geopolitical games, the poorest countries and regions must suffer?”
Mr Blinken called Russia’s claims that sanctions are to blame for the worsening global food crisis false, declaring: “The decision to weaponise food is Moscow’s and Moscow’s alone.”
“Sanctions aren’t blocking Black Sea ports, trapping ships filled with food, and destroying Ukrainian roads and railways; Russia is,” he said. “Sanctions are not emptying Ukrainian grain silos and stealing Ukrainian farm equipment; Russia is.”
Mr Blinken said sanctions imposed by the US and many others aren’t preventing Russia from exporting food and fertilizers because they exempt exports of food, fertiliser and seeds. “And we’re working with countries every day to ensure that they understand that sanctions do not prevent the flow of these items,” he added.
It came after President Joe Biden threw his support behind applications by Sweden and Finland to join Nato as Russia’s war in the heart of Europe challenges the continent’s security.