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Countering Putin’s Blame Game: Why the West Must Reset on Global Engagement

8 August 2022


As the world faces a looming food crisis, the Kremlin’s personnel have been on a charm offensive. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov set off on a tour of African countries last week, the latest in a series of attempts to rally support for Russia’s narrative on food security. Russia recognised the role that food would play in shaping the international response to Putin’s invasion well before many Western powers. This has left the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom playing catch-up as they rush to counter claims that it is Western sanctions, not Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, which are causing global food and energy prices to soar – and threatening to push tens of millions to the brink of starvation. This task is not being made any easier by years of Western disengagement, which have made many countries in the developing world more receptive to Russian claims that Western powers happily turn a blind eye to their needs. Russia’s narrative on food security is spreading fast but playing into its blame game will not solve anything. As we set out in our previous paper on the international fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the world is facing a crisis that could last for years. While soaring prices are already causing severe problems, by 2023 we could be facing unprecedented global shortages as farmers struggle to access the fertiliser needed for this planting season. The only way to counter Putin’s narrative is to prove we are taking this seriously. This means concrete solutions that go beyond rhetoric and bluster to set out measures that will limit the damage both to this year’s harvest and the next. First, this will mean recognising the agency of the developing countries most affected by soaring prices. For many leaders struggling to feed their populations, picking a side in the conflict is the last thing on their mind. Their priority is to secure support and relief from all possible avenues. This means any ostensible buy-in to Russia’s narrative should be taken with a pinch of salt. But it also means the West needs to be prepared to act when it is in the wrong. We identify three areas in which the US and EU need to urgently explore ways to mitigate the inadvertent knock-on effects of the economic measures they have taken against Russia. Otherwise, they risk lending credence to Russia’s claims. The areas are: cautious private-sector companies over-complying with sanctions; the difficulty of paying for essential Russian foodstuffs through the SWIFT financial messaging system; and the impact of rising energy prices on poorer countries as the EU scrambles to find non-Russian sources of energy. While the US and EU are moving in the right direction, they have not gone nearly far enough. This is not a battle that can be won through communications alone. Putin’s narrative – that sanctions have been applied with little thought to their impact on developing countries – is resonating with countries systematically overlooked by the West. In many cases, what we are seeing is the natural result of US and EU disengagement over the years. The only way to push back is with a show of genuine good faith – making it clear the West is committed to long-term change that will protect the world from future shocks but not shying away from acknowledging there are areas in which we can do better.



food security russia