Russia and the West. The world food system is imperilled by sanctions which owe more to feeling good than doing good

True to form, the G7, meeting in Bavaria, have just concluded with another sanctions-fest. A majority of the advanced industrialized countries curtailed all Russian gold purchases and are examining a cap on the price of Russian oil.

The previous sanctions on the Russian economy have led Moscow to default on its debt for the first time since the Russian Revolution. But the question remains, are these strictures hurting the rest of the world as much or more than the Kremlin?

During my Washington days, I always knew we had strayed from the serious when, flummoxed, my fellow decision-makers would look bleakly around the room at the Council on Foreign Relations, and then invariably recommend the same, one-size-fits-all policy; the great and the good would advocate sanctions as an all-purpose answer for dealing with any particularly knotty problem.

While such a policy suggestion almost never worked, it made political sense in a Washington sort of way. The beauty of such an outcome is that countries that enact sanctions are seen to be ‘doing something’ about an important foreign policy problem while at the same time what they were doing was sure not to basically alter the balance of forces involved in a particular crisis.

It was the best of all worlds for feeling good, rather than taking the risk of doing good. As a realist, I always hated when such an outcome (as it often did) came to pass.

Presently, you see a lot of this sort of posturing over the European response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has triggered a virtual torrent of economic sanctions that have been imposed by Western countries against leading sectors of the Russian economy, as well as many specific officials and entrepreneurs.

Some of these sanctions have had an immediate effect on Russia’s economy, though none has of yet has caused Vladimir Putin to change his overall strategy in the country; only military facts on the ground have done that.

As such, it is fair to say that the sanctions have yet to ‘work’ in policy terms, though they still might over the long term.

However, what is not in doubt are that the unintended consequences to Europe’s sanctions-happy approach are growing with each new round of sanctions. In general, a policy problem is becoming more and more apparent: Profligate sanctions are beginning to boomerang, affecting the state of the European and world economy at least as much of that of Russia.

Sanctions, like all policy alternatives, must be judged on their specific policy merits; they are neither always useful nor always counter-productive. However, a Western Europe less keen than the US and others to help Ukraine in the armaments sphere must not substitute inaction in one policy area with hyperactivity in another.

For example, the prospects for a food crisis – caused by unthinking sanctions unwittingly damaging the fragile global food eco-system – are increasingly being discussed, caused by both a reduction in grain exports from Russia and Ukraine and even more so by an unprecedented increase in prices for fertilizers previously supplied from Russia and Belarus.

For the facts make it clear that present EU sanctions are exacerbating an already dire situation regarding ongoing threats to the global food ecosystem. Presently, global hunger levels are at a new high. In just the past two years, the number of severely food insecure people has doubled, from 135 million (pre-Covid) to 276 million.

More worryingly, more than one half of these live in famine conditions, an increase of an astonishing 500 percent since 2016.

Into all this real peril, mineral fertilizer has played a decisive role in alleviating disaster. In fact, its global use over the past sixty years has been a significant buttress for the global population increasing from three billion in the early 1960s to the eight billion of today.

A decisive 50-70 percent of the people on the planet are currently being fed as a result of mineral fertilizer use. There is no getting away from its importance, or from the fact that at present Russia and Belarus are both key players in the global fertiliser market, with a combined share of 16 percent of global pro-duction of mineral fertilizers and 22 percent of their export.

The EU’s feel-good sanctions have already heavily affected the global supply of mineral fertilizers. One example will suffice. Eurochem, is the world’s second largest (by sales) mineral fertiliser company. Headquartered in Switzerland, the company was founded by Russian businessman Andrey Melnichenko. Eurochem is one of only three companies in the world that presently produces fertilizer in all three nutrient groups: nitrogen, phosphate and potash.

European sanctions have hit the company at almost every conceivable level, in terms of finance, sales, logistics, production, and procurement, decimating this vital conduit for food production.

For, contrary to the EU’s insistence, all of these sanctions have obviously materially affected the company’s prospects. In fact, EU sanctions have led to a decrease in overall mineral fertiliser sales sufficient to feed 30 million people.

And this is only as of now. Overall, due to EU sanctions, more than 20 percent of the global fertilizer trade is under threat, potentially affecting an astounding 750 million people.

Of course, there is a distinct geopolitical component to such folly. Limiting the supply of the industry could lead to the threat of crop failures and famine in the most fragile countries in the Middle East and North Africa, with catastrophic consequences.

Refugees could well flood across the Mediterranean, leading to further political radicalization in an already politically shaky southern Europe. As for North Africa, anarchy and chaos worse than the 2011 Arab Spring could easily take place in famine-stricken countries if the food crisis gathers pace. Radical Islamists under the banner of jihad may well come to power there, a nightmare scenario for a world that presently has more than enough problems.

Beyond the horrendous human suffering, Europe may well come to reap the whirlwind of its sanctions-happy folly.

What should the UK do about all this?

First, it should encourage its European partners (and to do so itself) to look specifically at every sanctions plank and package from the common-sense, realist notion of whether it helps or hinders global stability.

In the case of indirectly sanctioning the mineral fertilizer industry, London should strongly encourage Brussels to look at fertilizer and food security as a humanitarian issue and remove such strictures from imperilling the global food ecosystem.

Second, if the EU fails to do so, the UK – freed from going along with the EU’s often nonsensical, Wilsonian foreign policy initiatives – should chart its own course, making it clear that it will not follow the folly of its allies in thinking that all sanctions are somehow inherently good, effective, and in the UK’s interests.

No one is doubting that the Putin regime must be checked, due to its tsarist revisionism. The question is one of policy, of how to do this in the best, most effective way, one which will not leave millions of people in danger of starvation.

This post was originally published in Conservative Home.

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