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Interview: From Food Shortages To Geopolitical Shifts, The Ripple Effects Of Ukraine War Take Hold

Daniel Speckhard speaks at a news conference while he held the post of chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.
Daniel Speckhard speaks at a news conference while he held the post of chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has disrupted global food chains and is contributing to a crisis exacerbated by already-rising food prices and deepening poverty across much of the Middle East and parts of Africa.

Both Kyiv and Moscow are leading exporters of agricultural products to those regions, and the deepening ripple effects from the war are worrying governments and international organizations. The World Economic Forum has warned that crises in food, fuel, and finance worsened by the war could stoke unrest in poorer countries and push others into default.

A July deal struck by Turkey with Russia and Ukraine broke a monthslong Russian blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports and provided some hope for relief, although United Nations officials have said the shipments are not reaching those most in need and are unlikely to stave off a growing international food crisis.

To find out more about the growing fallout from the war, RFE/RL spoke with Daniel Speckhard, a former U.S. official who is currently president of Corus International, a global aid organization. Speckhard previously served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Greece and was NATO's deputy assistant secretary-general for political affairs, among other roles.

RFE/RL: You spent a large chunk of your career dealing with Russia, either directly or tangentially. How has the war in Ukraine changed the way that policymakers in Washington are seeing Moscow now compared to previous years? The last six months have changed many assumptions about Russian power. Where are things headed for how Washington sees the Kremlin and its foreign policy?

Daniel Speckhard: Because of Russia's nuclear status, the power that they still wield in the world is significant. While its conventional war capabilities have perhaps been shown to be weaker than one might have thought, I think the fundamentals are still the same: You have a nuclear power that wants to play on the global stage as an equal to the United States and China -- and they're going to act as if they are.

That makes it more dangerous. So, I think the concerns in Washington and [other] Western capitals -- and even in Beijing -- is that this is actually a more dangerous situation because things can escalate more quickly. Also, Russia by no means sees their weakness in the way that we do.

A ship with grain from a Ukrainian port sails along Turkey's Bosphorus Strait en route to Lebanon on August 3.
A ship with grain from a Ukrainian port sails along Turkey's Bosphorus Strait en route to Lebanon on August 3.

For how it has changed, I think relations have been going downhill for some time, especially after Russia's intervention in U.S. elections [in 2015 and 2016]. But the Ukraine situation has made it interesting in the context that the United States was very divided over Russian interference in the elections because there was a [domestic] political overlay that divided the country. The war in Ukraine has seen that mostly evaporate and, with the exception of a small group in the United States, there's overwhelming support for [Kyiv].

Anti-Russian feeling in Washington has also risen in some ways [and] that has also boxed in what's available on the foreign policy side for the foreseeable future. As a result, the part that I'm worried about is there are a lot of global issues that need to be addressed that do require Russian support and involvement, whether it's the environment, terrorism, organized crime, or cybersecurity. All of these issues require international cooperation -- and the fallout from the war could worsen many of those issues and make reaching the broad global consensus required difficult.

RFE/RL: Both Ukraine and Russia provide a lot of the world's wheat, especially to countries that are on the margins with their food security. We've already seen grain shortages affect the world, but what are some of the wider knock-on effects that this war is triggering?

Speckhard: It starts with the humanitarian crisis that is currently playing out. Nearly 48 million people, according to the United Nations, are facing emergency levels of hunger and that is leading to acute malnutrition, starvation, and even death.

But even more importantly, there's another 70 million people that have been pushed into poverty just since March because of what's happening in Ukraine in terms of the shortages of food [and] the disruptions of supplies for these countries.

A man in Somalia carries a sack of wheat flour imported from Turkey.
A man in Somalia carries a sack of wheat flour imported from Turkey.

In Lebanon, for instance, the price of a gallon of cooking oil can cost one month's salary. It's having an impact across many places, and what's interesting -- and concerning -- about this from the foreign policy perspective is this isn't going to stay as a humanitarian crisis. This is also going to lead to political crises and potentially security crises because when people get hungry, when economies get stressed to the brink -- especially these countries, which are already suffering from economic and environmental disruptions -- you get populations that are at the very end of survival and becoming desperate.

This leads to political upheaval and insecurity. Then that insecurity creates and feeds terrorism and violence across the world and interethnic and intertribal conflicts. So, I think we have to be very aware that there's roughly 200 million people in 53 countries that are facing acute food insecurity. When we watch how this plays out across the Middle East and the Sahel in Africa, we are going to see knock-on effects that aren't just humanitarian but are also political and security related.

So the challenge for the world's leaders is not to be so focused just on the Russia and Ukraine situation -- but that they also pay close attention to the very deep and desperate needs of many of these countries and help them stabilize and get through this difficult situation.

RFE/RL: There have been accusations by analysts and some Ukrainian officials that some of this is a deliberate strategy on Moscow's part. How do you see it?

Speckhard: What I would say is, it's a tertiary strategy, in the sense that the fundamental, central strategic objective here for Russia is Ukraine, but they are going to use all of this disruption as a target for their huge propaganda machine to blame the West for this.

You can already see that happening. There is a big public relations push being prepared, and I'd expect that to be accompanied by Russia sending aid and then having its propaganda networks talking about how weak and inefficient the UN response is in comparison.

Families receive flour rations and other basic food supplies in southern Yemen, where rising food costs are contributing to a deepening famine.
Families receive flour rations and other basic food supplies in southern Yemen, where rising food costs are contributing to a deepening famine.

Another angle is these strains that we've discussed will weaken governments and there will be lots of hungry people looking for answers -- and they may start looking to authoritarian leaders that say they can protect them. Moscow has already been deepening its links with authoritarian regimes, especially in Africa, and has been providing security and economic assistance. They've been playing this game for decades, and I'd expect it to accelerate as new opportunities open up.

RFE/RL: What are some of the cards that can be played by the international community to help deal with this crisis? Apart from ending the war, what options exist?

Speckhard: What I think needs to happen is enough attention needs to be drawn to this at the international level.

It's not enough for the United States to say this is happening or draw attention to it, but it needs broad international recognition at the UN, World Bank, G20, and other organizations. There also needs to be a broader push to put pressure on Russia.

I think there is an opportunity here for other countries to get involved, like we saw with Turkey being able to open up the Black Sea ports to allow food to flow again. So there is a chance for countries to step up and shine by focusing on the humanitarian needs of the rest of the world.

Things like that might not end the war -- which would have the biggest impact -- but they can certainly make a difference.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.