A combine at work in Rostov Oblast, Russia. Photo: Wikipedia

As NATO allies weigh a potential military response to the Kremlin’s saber-rattling on Ukraine, one question that few pundits have pondered is this: Could a new war between Moscow and Kiev produce food shortages in the Middle East?

Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s largest exporters of cereals, and their combined wheat exports account for nearly a quarter of the 206.9 million megatons produced globally, according to forecasts from the US Department of Agriculture.

Egypt and Turkey, meanwhile, are among the largest wheat importers in the world, which means that those two Middle Eastern nations could pay the heaviest price if a Russia-Ukraine conflict leads to a disruption of global food supplies. 

Even without a major new conflict in Eastern Europe (Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces in Donbas since 2014), global food prices in 2021 were up nearly 30% from a year earlier. And while Ukraine has exported most of its cereals harvested in the summer of 2021, a Russian invasion could suspend the spring grain sowing.

Add to this a regional fertilizer crisis fueled by an energy crunch, export curbs, and trade sanctions, and Russian and Ukrainian farmers are already navigating significant agricultural challenges.

War would up the ante considerably. For instance, if the United States and its European partners imposed restrictions on Russian businesses because of military action, food supplies from Russia to Western Asia would likely be limited further.

That in turn would increase demand for Ukrainian wheat, especially from Middle Eastern states. Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural products and has recently expanded into Middle Eastern markets.

The ubiquity of Ukrainian commodities is not new. After World War II, the Soviet Union was largely self-sufficient in grain, and Ukraine, with its fertile fields of wheat and as part of the USSR, became the breadbasket of the Soviet empire.

Soviet Ukraine also developed a strong industrial base, but because post-Soviet Ukraine lost some of the industrial power that it had during the Soviet era, agriculture became the country’s most important sector.

The problem now is that another war in the Black Sea region would impact not only Ukraine’s agricultural output, but also its ability to transport wheat and other products overseas.

In other words, military occupation of Black Sea ports could result in a significant amount of food blocked out of international markets, which would undoubtedly affect countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Israel and Oman – Ukraine’s major wheat buyers. Lebanon and Yemen in particular are already suffering severe food security challenges, and any additional tightening of resources could be catastrophic.  

Arab Gulf states could also feel the effects. In 2020, five of the top 11 importers of Ukrainian chicken were Middle Eastern nations, while Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are the major export destinations for Ukrainian chicken-meat producers. 

The potential ripple effects of food disruptions are more than theoretical. In 2010, after drought devastated Russia’s wheat crop, Moscow imposed a wheat export ban to secure domestic supplies. But the move may have indirectly contributed to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East.

Wheat prices rose globally, and Egypt, as Russia’s biggest grain consumer, felt the consequences first-hand as protesters demanded a halt to rising bread prices. While the grievances soon expanded beyond the dinner table, the regional uprisings that began in Tunisia and Egypt were partly caused by the global food crisis.

While Russia has become a major player in the Middle East’s food supply, this was not always the case.

In 2001, Russia exported 696,000 megatons of wheat, while in 2020, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian Federation exported 38 million megatons. In other words, despite the perception that Moscow exports only weapons and energy, in reality, Russia has developed a strong wheat-export industry, and the Middle East is one of its most important markets.

If Western allies were to respond to a Russian invasion with sanctions on Russian food exports or by banning Moscow from SWIFT – the international payment system used by banks around the world – it is not inconceivable that prices of basic commodities in the Middle East could skyrocket. 

Ukraine, for its part, is the world’s sixth-largest exporter of wheat and seen by many as one of the guarantors of global food security. Moscow’s war footing is threatening Kiev’s position.

Food security, as defined by the United Nations, means that people everywhere have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their preferences and dietary needs. Along with the many other horrors of war, it is this basic human right that could be jeopardized in the case of a direct military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. 

Wars are one of the main causes of hunger, and conflicts always push food prices up. But in a globalized economy, the impacts on food availability are felt far beyond the front lines.

As Russia and the West search for a peaceful way out of the impasse, the unintended consequences for food security in the Middle East must factor into the diplomatic calculations.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Nikola Mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”