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Russia’s Hunger War

Opening a new front in its disinformation campaign, Moscow blames the West for food shortages and presents itself as Africa’s savior.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 sparked an immediate information war in Kyiv. Preparedness was high among the Ukrainians. After that, it appeared to Western observers that they were unstoppable in their online conflict. As a result, European and North American users of the most popular social media sites have shown nearly unanimous support for the Ukrainian people and solidarity with their cause.

The Ukrainian government’s social media accounts have been coordinated to promote a single narrative about the country’s heroic resistance to the brutal Russian invaders. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, the campaign’s central figure, enjoyed widespread acclaim in the West during the months of March and April.

If Ukraine has been successful in the information war, Russia has been almost as ineffective as its tank regiments. Moscow has made little effort to make its case to an international audience, beyond making some routine statements about NATO expansion. Communications from the government have primarily aimed at the Russian people with the intention of normalizing Russian aggression and preparing the populace for a future without Western influences such as McDonald’s, Apple, or Netflix.

Moscow’s apparent awareness of the futility of the conflict may explain why it has made no effort to sell the war abroad. It was hard to tell if the early weeks of the war coverage on state news channel RT was clumsily denialist or just plain delusional, with images of smiling troops marching and Ukrainians waving Russian flags pointing to a Potemkin military campaign.

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Many people concluded that Russia had “lost” the information war because of this discordant split screen. That is now accepted knowledge in Western societies.

To the contrary, that is not the case. Although Moscow has suffered some setbacks in the information war, it has shifted its focus to new battlegrounds that are less visible to the West.

Russia is now targeting ex-Western colonies, especially in Africa, where anti-Western sentiment is already high with its disinformation campaign. Moscow has coordinated its media outlets and social-media accounts to spin this message: Western sanctions against Russia are to blame for causing the shortages, and Ukraine is deliberately destroying grain supplies.

Conflict over food (David Frum)

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It was late April when I visited Odesa, and the mines and steel walls that surround Ukraine’s most important Black Sea port were already in place. There was heavy fighting going on nearby in the south of the country. About 70 miles to the east, in the city of Mykolaiv, the Ukrainian army was holding off the Russians. The people of Odessa anticipated a protracted conflict. I was unable to take photographs of anything the twitchy soldiers deemed to be sensitive, and I was now prevented from walking freely along the city’s shoreline where I once could have done so without fear.

As they bobbed just over the horizon, Russian warships waited for their chance to strike. They could take comfort in the fact that the most important harbor in Ukraine would be useless as long as they continued to patrol the coast of the Black Sea.

Moscow’s strategy became apparent even in the early months of the war. If Russia’s military efforts against Ukraine failed, it would resort to economic warfare by cutting off the country’s access to international markets. The plan was straightforward: to squeeze Ukraine to death.

Mykola Solskyi, the agriculture minister of Ukraine, has called one of these methods “outright robbery.” Russian spies have stolen and destroyed grain stores in Ukraine, according to Ukrainian security analyst Hanna Shelest, who I met in Odesa. She claimed that grain was stolen from Ukrainian farms wherever Russian troops were stationed, but particularly in the southern regions around Kherson and Zaporizhzhya.

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This is “happening everywhere in occupied territory,” as Solskyi put it in an interview with Al Jazeera. He stated that Russia had stolen several hundred thousand tons of grain back in April. Whatever the Russian soldiers didn’t take, they ruined. About 300 tons of grain destined for export were destroyed when Russian forces attacked a grain terminal in Mykolaiv on June 6.

Russia has a plan for Ukraine, according to Neil Hauer. This place reminds me of Chechnya.

While food insecurity is rarely the sole cause of social unrest in Africa, it has historically been a major contributor. Due in large part to rising unemployment and international food price spikes, people in the Arab World took to the streets in 2011. Preceding President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, annual food price inflation in Egypt reached nearly 19 percent. Based on current trends in the region, the Kiel Institute predicts that both Egypt and Tunisia will see reductions in their wheat imports of more than 17 percent. In addition, the institute expects South Africa to reduce its wheat imports by 7% and its imports of other grains by more than 16%. The continent as a whole will face a food security crisis as a direct consequence.

Russia has begun preparing its counter-disinformation strategy. The headline of an article published on the Russian state news agency Sputnik on June 24 read, “How the UK is Doing Its Best to Stir a Food Crisis while Pinning the Blame on Russia.” You can count on this being a total fabrication. Just recently, I was a part of a press briefing where Western diplomats were given the opportunity to speak without fear of repercussions from having their words misquoted. One diplomat explained, “it’s not sanctions that are causing food-security issues because we do not impose sanctions that restrict trade in food and fertilizer from Russia and to any third countries.”

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Russia’s denial of the consequences of its aggression is only one part of the Kremlin’s emerging strategy. After hearing “a very cynical joke that appeared—not even a joke, just an outcry” in Moscow, RT’s editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan relayed the news to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. What this means is that the famine will begin soon, and Western nations will end their sanctions and become our friends because they will see that the sanctions were pointless.

Russia’s tactic consists primarily of using blackmail. To force the Ukrainian government to lift the sanctions that have been crippling its economy, Moscow has threatened to prevent grain exports. Diplomats from the West were crystal clear about what they saw. One of them explained that Russia is acting maliciously in order to bring about a famine and subsequent chaos in the hopes of reducing the severity of sanctions against their country. Russia will begin grain exports once sanctions are lifted, a point Putin has made abundantly clear. According to official Russian government statements, this is the case.

Another consideration is that Russia is Ukraine’s main rival in the grain export market. Moscow’s strategy is to hold the threat of food scarcity over the world in exchange for diplomatic support for its war, and then to cast itself as the savior by appearing just in time with its own grain supply (much of it stolen, of course). Since rising commodity prices have already had a disproportionately negative impact on the poorest citizens of African countries, Moscow’s gambit will almost certainly be well received. The pro-Russia governor of the occupied parts of Zaporizhzhya, Yevhen Balytskyi, recently announced on the social media app Telegram that 7,000 metric tons of grain would be sent to “friendly” countries. As obvious as it is obscene, there is a corresponding exchange here.

Ukraine is acting belatedly to counter Russia’s use of international hunger as a political weapon. When President Zelensky addressed the African Union last month, he called the continent a “hostage” in Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.

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I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, the minister of information for Ghana and a leading figure in the fight against disinformation across Africa. In his mind, there was no question that the region was in peril. Blocking grain exports, which causes a food crisis in many parts of the world, especially Africa, is “most troublesome,” he said. “It is bad enough that war has broken out.” Many families in Africa are having a hard time providing for themselves, and the situation is becoming very concerning. Life-threatening food shortages have begun in some countries.

Nkrumah is aware of the gravity of the danger posed by Russia’s disinformation campaign. We’re doing everything we can to educate the public on what’s behind the current crisis and how to mitigate its effects, he said. Yet, I must confess that this is extremely challenging because, once again, disinformation is coming from some of the various nations responsible for this crisis, which is driven by Western social media tools in particular, just as the crisis is driven by Western battles.

Such messaging, amplified by Russian embassy accounts, trickles down to Kenyan Twitter accounts, where pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiment has become recently much more obvious. In one tweet pinned by a user named “Jonson Mwangi,” whose Twitter handle suggests he is employed by a Nairobi-based NGO, photos purportedly from Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria before and after U.S. intervention are presented. Does this sound familiar?,” the tweet reads. Where do you get your moral high ground to criticize Russia? Russia annexed Crimea and rebuilt it into a great city..look at all your previous invasions; women were raped, infrastructure was destroyed, and a well-developed economy was destroyed in the name of?”

Russia’s use of the grain crisis is just the most recent example of its larger strategy of using instability to enact what the U.S. State Department has termed “perpetual adversarial competition.” Moscow’s information and disinformation operations in the digital sphere aim to plant, amplify, and perpetuate insidious, corrosive narratives with the goal of undermining the West and democracy while promoting Russia as a better partner for African nations.

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The cost of living has increased across the board. Now I hear we might be having food issues,” Gilbert, a taxi driver in Nairobi, told me. Another time, Africans are bearing the brunt of tensions among the world’s superpowers.

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