Russia, Ukraine, and Global Food Security: A Two-Year Assessment

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused the greatest military-related increase in global food insecurity in at least a century. Although the issue has receded from headlines, impacts persist: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that millions will still be chronically undernourished in 2030 because of Russia’s war. The effects of Russia’s destruction of Ukraine’s agriculture sector extend beyond global food insecurity, as Russia uses its own agricultural exports for influence in the Global South. Congressional gridlock over aid to Ukraine threatens Ukraine’s agricultural recovery and global food security, and risks fortifying the primary tool of Russia’s soft power: its food exports.

Q1: How do Ukraine’s agriculture sector and global food security figure in Russia’s strategy in Ukraine?

A1: For the duration of the war, Ukraine’s agriculture sector has been a primary target of Russia’s assaults, with impacts apparent across Ukraine’s production infrastructure, including farms, fields, processing facilities, and warehouses; export infrastructure, including roads, railways, bridges, storage facilities, and ports; and its agricultural labor force. In March 2023, the World Bank, Kyiv School of Economics, European Union, and United Nations estimated that the war had resulted in a total of $40.2 billion in aggregate losses and damages to Ukraine’s agriculture sector. The World Bank and partners estimated damage to the irrigation sector at a further $380.5 million. Damages and losses have almost certainly soared since February 2023. The breach of the Kakhovka Dam on June 6, 2023, destroyed irrigation infrastructure and rendered farmland in the region unusable. In July 2023, Russia terminated the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI), which had allowed safe export of the majority of Ukraine’s grains through three of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, and immediately ramped up attacks on Ukraine’s export infrastructure. Between July and December 2023, the United Nations recorded 31 attacks that damaged or destroyed grain production and export capability in Ukraine. And in 2023, Ukraine became the most mined country in the world, with landmines disrupting Ukraine’s current and future agricultural productivity. (Russia has fielded a new system for mining Ukraine’s agricultural lands, called “Zemledelie” or “agriculture,” capable of quickly mining an area equal to several football fields.) Shocks to the global fertilizer and energy markets due to the war have obstructed Ukraine’s access to fertilizer, further undermining its agricultural productivity.

Beyond the widespread damage to Ukraine’s agriculture sector, Russia is accused of stealing nearly 6 million metric tons (mmt) of Ukrainian wheat from occupied territories by mid-2023.

Russia reaps significant benefits from attacking Ukraine’s agriculture sector. Attacks on agriculture are attacks on Ukraine’s economy writ large, as agriculture is a major source of Ukraine’s GDP and export revenue. Attacks on Ukraine’s maritime export infrastructure has forced Ukraine to export a greater proportion of its grains through its European neighbors, causing trade tensions that undermine European support for Ukraine. Furthermore, limiting Ukraine’s agricultural exports has disrupted agriculture markets, affecting food-importing countries and leaving gaps for Russia to fill—and exploit—through its own agricultural production and exports.

Q2: How has Russia’s war affected Ukraine’s agricultural production and exports?

A2: Ukraine produces less wheat and more corn than Russia, but Ukraine’s agricultural production and exports of both commodities have fallen due to the conflict. Compared to the 2020–2021 season, the last season unaffected by Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s wheat exports for 2023–2024 are predicted to decline by 11 percent to 15 mmt, and Ukraine’s corn exports are predicted to decline by 15 percent to 23 mmt.

The export of Ukraine’s agricultural commodities has been hindered—and helped—by several factors since February 2022. Following over five straight months of a maritime export blockade, the UN-brokered BSGI was implemented in July 2022, reenabling Ukraine’s maritime exports. From July 2022 through July 2023, Ukraine safely exported 32.9 mmt of grains to 45 countries around the world, including 725,000 metric tons of grains to the World Food Program (WFP). Alongside land-based routes via EU-supported “solidarity lanes, ” the BSGI helped sustain Ukraine’s agricultural economy, although it did not enable Ukraine to return to prewar maritime export levels. As a result of the cessation of the BSGI, Ukraine announced a “humanitarian corridor” or “Ukrainian corridor” by which it would export grains from three of its Black Sea ports, with ships hugging the Romanian and Bulgarian coasts en route to the Bosphorus Strait. In December, Ukraine shipped 4.8 million metric tons of grains via the humanitarian corridor, exceeding any single month’s exports under the BSGI. The viability of Ukraine’s humanitarian corridor depends on strengthening Ukrainian naval defense capabilities, as well as Moscow’s risk calculations, given the potential for any Russian attack on civilian ships to alienate countries shipping or importing food from Ukraine.

While Ukraine’s humanitarian corridor has helped maintain, and even increase, its maritime agricultural exports, ongoing conflict in the Red Sea has introduced new threats. If Red Sea hostilities persist, nearly 27 percent of Ukraine’s maritime wheat exports could be affected, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. Shipping disruptions raise the cost of shipping for exporters, reducing the price paid to Ukrainian producers, and raise the price paid by consumers, including those in food-insecure countries.

Q3: Why does it matter that global food prices are receding?

A3: Pandemic-related market shocks increased global food prices throughout 2020 and 2021. Because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, global food prices hit an all-time high in March 2022. Prices had fallen below their pre-invasion levels by December 2022, and by January 2024, the FAO announced that global food prices had fallen to their lowest level in three years. But receding global food prices mask an ongoing global food security crisis, which Russia continues to manipulate through its own agricultural exports.

While global food prices measured in U.S. dollars are falling, local food prices measured in national currencies are rising in many countries. As of September and October 2023, for example, more than a third of low-income countries (LICs) and lower-middle-income countries (LMICs) experienced food price inflation of more than 15 percent, with food price inflation at 30 percent for LICs in that period. These same countries have relatively less fiscal space to support household-level food security, having depleted their national budgets during the Covid-19 pandemic, and are less able to afford the cost of imports, given the relative strength of the U.S. dollar. In these countries, food insecurity persists, with the lowest-income households often the worst affected.

Nonetheless, falling global food prices have contributed to lower domestic food prices in many other countries around the world. Reductions in Ukraine’s agricultural exports have left gaps that other exporters must fill in order to maintain supplies on global markets. However, given ongoing threats to global agriculture markets—such as export restrictions imposed by major exporting countries, the impacts of climate change on agriculture productivity, and disruptions to global trade, including in the Red Sea—the ability of other producers to make up for Ukraine’s shortfall is uncertain.

According to the Food Security Information Network’s Global Report on Food Crises, 258 million people faced high levels of acute food insecurity in 2022, the highest number in the history of the report, due at least in part to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and resulting shocks in the food, fertilizer, and energy markets. At the same time, the cost of humanitarian assistance skyrocketed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Today, the WFP’s monthly operating costs remain $28 million higher than pre-invasion. Rising global food prices have increased the cost of commodities purchased and distributed by organizations such as the WFP and UNICEF. At the same time, rising local food prices have necessitated increases in the value of in-kind assistance, while rising fuel costs have increased the cost of providing emergency services. For those suffering acute food insecurity, particularly children, a lack of access to adequate nutrition due to the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could have lifelong impacts on physical and cognitive development.

In the context of Russia’s war, food insecurity in LICs and LMICs is a vulnerability that Russia continues to manipulate through its own agriculture exports. Due to favorable growing conditions, Russia’s wheat exports in the 2023–2024 growing season are predicted to increase by 30 percent compared to 2020–2021, rising to a record 51 mmt, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. President Vladimir Putin in late 2023 declared his intention to “replace Ukrainian grain” with Russia’s formidable exports, making up for shortfalls in food-importing countries through offers of low-cost or free grain. Russian state news reported on February 21, 2024, that Russia’s agriculture ministry had completed delivery of grains to the countries President Putin had pledged support to at the July 2023 Russia-Africa Summit (including 25,000 metric tons of wheat each to Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, and Zimbabwe, and 50,000 metric tons of wheat to Somalia and the Central African Republic). Similarly, an analysis of trade data reveals that Russia increased exports of wheat to every region of sub-Saharan Africa between the 2022–2023 and 2023–2024 agricultural seasons. Food exports are a major source of Russia’s soft power, particularly in the Global South, and the potency of this weapon depends on the levels of food insecurity and food-import dependence in the countries Russia seeks to manipulate.

Q4: How is congressional gridlock affecting Ukraine’s agriculture exports, global food security, and Moscow’s soft power?

A4: In July 2022, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced the Agriculture Resilience and Growth Initiative for Ukraine (AGRI-Ukraine), to which the agency contributed $100 million and has announced a further $250 million, with pledges to leverage an additional $500 million from other donors. Beyond USAID’s support, Ukraine’s agriculture sector benefits directly from other sources, including the U.S. Department of State, which funds humanitarian demining efforts across the country, including Ukraine’s farmland.

U.S. assistance for Ukraine’s agriculture sector would mean little if Ukraine were unable to defend itself against Russian aggression generally. A weakened Ukraine would put more of Ukraine’s agricultural land, labor, and infrastructure at risk, with the potential for Russia to co-opt more of Ukraine’s agriculture capabilities and products for its benefit. Securing Ukraine’s defense capabilities is important not only for the survival of Ukraine, but for the viability of its agriculture sector and the availability of Ukrainian exports as an alternative to Russian exports. And while robust military aid is of primary importance to the survival of Ukraine’s agriculture sector, the United States and other donors should also consider increasing investments in Ukraine’s agricultural recovery, given its importance to Ukraine’s economy and global food security and to diminishing the soft power strength of Russia’s agricultural exports.

Caitlin Welsh is the director of the Global Food and Water Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.