Russian President Vladimir Putin has a new secret weapon. And we are his targets.
Extreme weather events brought about by pollution-induced climate change are devastating crops worldwide. And the Covid-19 pandemic has made matters worse by tangling global supply chains.
But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has toppled this complex system, triggering a cascade of shortages and price increases.
That's not how Putin is framing it, though.
He is accusing Ukraine of manufacturing the food crisis — even as his missiles rain down on storage facilities, ports and rail yards. Satellite photos have even caught Russia hauling stolen grain out of the country.
But according to international strategic analysts, that's not the worst of it.
Food prices appear to have become a precisely targeted weapon of diplomacy. And Putin's propaganda is twisting global blame toward the West.
"When the food riots begin, and as starvation spreads, Russian propaganda will blame Ukraine, and call for Russia's territorial gains in Ukraine to be recognised, and for all sanctions to be lifted," warns Yale University expert on authoritarianism Professor Timothy Snyder.
It's a great-power hunger game.
And a Catch-22.
"The West faces a dilemma," adds Professor of international politics Masahiro Matsumura. "If the West decides to lift the current sanctions, that will constitute a confirmation of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, accelerating the weakening of the existing liberal international order.
"Conversely, if the West chooses to continue the sanctions, that will deepen the emerging food crisis and the instability of many developing countries - pushing them away toward authoritarianism and further weakening the international order."
Food for thought
Thousands of Ukrainians are starving in cities besieged by Russian troops. Nearby, 23 million tons of grains and oil seeds are locked up in their granaries.
But Ukraine is also a global "breadbasket" - contributing some 20 per cent of global grain exports.
Not this year.
"Vladimir Putin's most powerful weapon is not in his military arsenal. It is the threat of migration and unrest provoked by disrupting food supplies to Africa and the Middle East," says Center for European Policy Analysis Russia expert Edward Lucas.
Those countries reliant on Ukrainian wheat won't get it. And there isn't much excess left in the rest of the global market to make up shortfalls.
Meanwhile, Ukraine's grain is rotting in its silos.
"Russia is occupying the ports of Mariupol, Berdyansk, Skhadovsk, and Kherson," Ukraine's deputy head of the Sea Port Authority, Dmitri Barinov, told local media. "Its warships are blocking the ports that remain under Ukrainian control in Mykolaiv and Odesa regions. It is impossible to ship out the harvest."
Russia is itself a major grain producer.
But international sanctions imposed for its invasions are holding its exports back.
Now President Putin appears to have conspired with China's Chairman Xi Jinping to create a way to bypass this.
"For grains imports from Russia, developing countries will have to rely on an alternative online system for international settlement, most probably, China's Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CIPS)," says Professor Matsumura. "That has seen a gradual and steady growth in the networking, in tandem with many infrastructure building projects under the Bridge and Road Initiatives across the developing world."
Moscow will get cash for grain. But Beijing will win the power game by becoming the hub of a new financial network.
"Most importantly, such a plausible outcome involves significant risks to further weaken the key currency role of the US dollar as an essential base of the US economic hegemony and the US-led international order," Professor Matsumura warns.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists the invasion of Ukraine is not targeting its agricultural exports. Instead, it is all the Kyiv government's fault.
"We have explained that grain can be transported freely to its appointed destination. From the Russian side, there are no obstacles," he says. "It is only necessary for President Zelenskyy to give the order to allow international and Ukrainian ships to exit the Black Sea."
But Russian attacks on Ukrainian ports are well documented, as are strikes against rail infrastructure and grain storage facilities.
Not to mention the presence of its warships blockading Ukraine's access to the Black Sea.
"This disinformation is intended to both hide Russia's culpability and persuade leaders of at-risk countries to support an end to sanctions designed to stop Russia's unjust and brutal war in Ukraine," a US State Department report reads.
"The Russian government should stop weaponising food and allow Ukraine to safely ship out its grain so that millions of hungry people in the Middle East and Africa can be fed."
But President Putin sees a more profitable path.
Ukrainian deputy minister for agriculture Taras Vysotsky accuses Russia of seizing grain from captured silos in occupied regions and transporting it for sale.
"We see that about half a million tons of grain have been stolen," Vysotsky said. "There is evidence from all the temporarily occupied regions — Kherson, Zaporizhia, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Kharkiv."
And satellite photos have caught Moscow in the act.
Maxar has published images of ships being loaded at Sevastopol in occupied Crimea. One was then photographed later unloading at Latakia in Syria. Another was seen delivering its illicit cargo to Turkey.
Black Sea blockade
"Putin is stopping food from being shipped and is aggressively using his propaganda machine to deflect or distort responsibility because he hopes it'll get the world to give in to him and end the sanctions," accuses US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
"In other words, quite simply put, it's blackmail,"
Ukraine has filled the sea around the Black Sea cities of Odesa and Kherson with floating mines. These were intended to counter a Russian amphibious invasion.
Moscow had just such a fleet at sea in the war's opening weeks. The failure of its land campaign resulted in its eventual retreat.
But Russian blockade forces remain in place - despite the high-profile loss of the guided-missile cruiser Moskva.
"They have fired on approximately ten commercial ships since the start of the war. In one incident, a sailor on a Bangladeshi-flagged vessel was killed," says Barinov.
Some 70 bulk cargo ships are trapped, each filled with about 100,000 tons of grain. Their owners are hesitant to run the gauntlet of mines and missiles as international insurance agencies refuse to cover them.
And the grain in their holds is getting stale.
But Moscow is blaming Kyiv's mines.
"If Ukraine is ready to kick off demining activities, then we are ready for that as well," Lavrov said, adding: "The ball is on their side now."
But neighbouring Turkey's offer to sweep Ukraine's minefields is problematic.
"Putin says he will not use trade routes to attack Odesa," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week. "This is the same Putin who told German Chancellor Scholz and French President Macron he would not attack Ukraine — days before launching a full-scale invasion of our country. We cannot trust Putin. His words are empty,"
Freeing up the flow of Ukrainian grain will reduce the global food crisis. But it won't end it.
It was already emerging due to global climate change and supply-chain disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Turkish delegation this week visited Moscow for talks on allowing grain exports out of Ukraine.
"The parties discussed the safe exit of Turkish merchant ships and the export of grain from Ukrainian ports, as well as approaches to ensuring safe navigation in the Black Sea," the Russian Ministry of Defence said in a statement.
Ankara wants to establish "safe corridors" through the minefields and assurances from Moscow and Ukraine that the cargo ships will not be attacked. It offers to escort grain ships as a neutral third party to ensure they're not targeted - or militarised - by either side.
An alternative is for a NATO or US-led intervention, similar to that in the Persian Gulf during the 1980s. But this would put Western warships uncomfortably close to the war zone and has so far been ruled out.
"The Black Sea comes up a lot in our conversations," US delegate to NATO Julianne Smith told reporters. "The conversations continue, not only at NATO the UN, and we'll continue to grapple with this challenge.".
And then there's a matter of trust.
"It's easy to imagine Russia finding an irregularity in the paperwork and confiscating the ship and sending it to Sevastopol," says Kings College London war studies analyst Marcus Faulkner.
It would also entail an internationally enforced cease-fire zone.
"But that would require Russia to cede its military control of the north-western Black Sea, and it is not going to agree to that," warns Faulkner.
And Turkey's role is also questionable.
"It had already been reported a few weeks back that Turkey likely was purchasing stolen grain. This complicates the negotiation process and understandably makes Ukraine reluctant on the current schemes being floated," he adds.
"Blocking grain exports means you're condemning millions of children, women and men far from the conflict to death," accused Italy's Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Chad, Egypt, Somalia and Lebanon are especially reliant on Ukrainian grains.
"Starvation is one of the oldest weapons of war," argue Tufts University professors Tom Dannenbaum, Alex De Wall and Daniel Maxwell. "Romans used it to defeat and destroy Carthage in 146 BC. The tactics have changed little over time."
But, in 1977, the Geneva Convention was updated to prohibit the "starvation of civilians as a method of warfare".
"Russian forces in Ukraine have engaged in an ever-lengthening list of starvation tactics - besieging entrapped populations, attacking grocery stores and agricultural areas and granaries, deploying land mines on agricultural land, blocking wheat-laden ships from leaving Ukrainian harbours and destroying a critical grain export terminal in Mykolaiv," the Tufts University professors point out.
And Moscow has ceased exporting fertilisers to the world market despite being exempted from international sanctions.
"When jostling for influence in a region, food exports can become a diplomatic instrument in the form of "food power", logistics analysts Sarah Schiffling and Nikolaos Kanellos.
"Accusations of weaponising food are being levelled at Russia, while China has been both the accused and accuser when it comes to food hoarding fears."
It's not just about Russia and China: The European Union is targeting food aid in the Middle East and North Africa to shore up its influence there.
But the West is falling behind in the global propaganda: The chair of the African Union, Senegalese president Macky Sall, has criticised Western sanctions as the cause of Africa's food supply issues.
"As major world powers blame each other for their role in driving the current crisis, distributing a limited amount of food to meet global demand will be a defining issue of 2022," Schiffling and Kanellos conclude.