It appears that Russia is deliberately trying to exacerbate a looming global food crisis in its latest attacks on Ukraine. On Sunday Russia struck Kyiv and Mykolayiv with airstrikes. According to reporting from Simon Shuster of Time magazine, the Russians hit a Kyiv factory that works on grain-transport railway cars. In Mykolayiv, the Russians hit one of the largest grain storage/shipment facilities in Ukraine. Russian propagandists loudly proclaimed that the targets of the strikes in Kyiv were tanks donated by Western countries, but they are less vocal about their strikes on critical grain storage and transport facilities in Ukraine. Hitting Ukraine’s wheat industry does not just hurt Ukraine’s economy and make more poor people hungry around the world, it drives up the price of Russia’s grain exports. Russia is already trying to use high food prices as an argument against sanctions, even as it makes the situation worse.
Ukraine is a major exporter of grain, especially wheat and seeds used for seed oil. Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports and disruption of the whole country has effectively removed 20 percent of the world’s expected wheat exports from the market. Most Ukrainian grain was transported to the ports on the Black Sea coast and then exported by ship; now that is no longer possible. Ukraine lacks sufficient rail capacity to ship all the grain to Europe over land. I spoke to one expert on the subject last week, and she estimated that it would take Ukraine 18 months to two years to export all its grain in storage via rail. With Russia’s strike on the Kyiv plant that works with grain export train cars this capacity is reduced further. Additionally, if the existing harvested grains aren’t transported out of Ukraine this year, then Ukrainian farmers will have nowhere to store their harvest in the fall, and no incentive to plant new grains for the next year. Agriculture is responsible for about 9 percent of Ukraine’s GDP and provides 18 percent of all the jobs in Ukraine. Shutting this sector down would be a huge blow to Ukraine’s economy and a great victory in Russia’s war of attrition.
A Russian attempt to prevent the export of Ukraine’s grain might also be a partial explanation for Russia’s repeated attacks on the Dniester estuary bridge. This bridge has a rail line and a roadway, and Russia has attacked it with cruise missiles four times since the start of expanded hostilities. This repeated fixation on this bridge was a bit puzzling for me. On the one hand, in principle destroying it would isolate the Budjak region of Ukraine (the southwest corner of Ukraine) from the rest of the country. But there is another way to drive into the region, by taking the M15 highway from Odesa. This road briefly passes through Moldova but the countries have worked out an arrangement where you can pass through Moldova without going through customs. This road was recently totally resurfaced and it is much better than the one that crosses the Dniester bridge.
Perhaps if Russia was planning to conduct some kind of operation in the Budjak region and make it a new “Peoples’ Republic,” attacking the bridge would make military sense. Russia actually tried something like this in March 2015 with the “People’s Rada of Bessarabia,” (another name for Budjak) but there is no indication that something like this is in the cards again, and Russia lacks the amphibious capacity to capture this territory outright. However, if Russia is trying to prevent the use of the rail line that runs from Odesa’s port to Romania (and the Danube) in order to disrupt grain exports, the repeated strikes make more sense. The only other train lines from Odesa that do not have to take the long way around into Europe through Western Ukraine head through the Russian-influenced Transdnestrian breakaway “republic” in Moldova, rail lines which Russia could probably disrupt or destroy with ease—or just prevent their use entirely.