The United States needs a better strategy to limit the effects of Putin’s war on food

RRussian dictator Vladimir Putin is carrying out war plans beyond the battlefield. It targets Ukrainian agricultural production, seizing almost 20% of Ukrainian grain silos, closing more than a third of the country’s planting season and blocking 22 million tonnes of grain ready for export at the port of Odessa with 400 mines which he placed round the harbour.

In Ukraine, more than 14 million people have been displaced and face severe food insecurity. Beyond Ukraine, more than 270 million people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia depend on Ukraine’s breadbasket. Putin’s calculation is simple: he intends to bring a starving world to its knees in exchange for economic sanctions relief and territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.

Solving the long-term humanitarian crisis requires the United States to adapt its response. Putin listened to President Joe Biden say he would not deliver long-range weapons systems or unleash US energy production needed to wean Europe off Russian oil and gas. Both of these policy choices give a lasting advantage to Russia’s military campaign and thus to the global humanitarian crisis. Forty billion dollars of money allocated by Congress will not solve a weak and too cautious strategy of the United States

Hundreds of volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, World Central Kitchen, Save our Allies and others are already feeding Ukrainians, treating the wounded and evacuating the most vulnerable out of the war zone without government support. Obtaining funds to support their operations must be a priority. The U.S. Agency for International Development has received more than $17 billion in funding across two additional programs, and much of the humanitarian assistance authorized by Congress in March remains untouched.

Instead of working with capable partners, USAID chose to work with the United Nations. This is not a solution, given the strong presence of Russia and China in the UN Security Council. Indeed, Russia tried to prevent the UN from condemning its illegal invasion of Ukraine by vetoing a resolution on the matter earlier this year.

Beyond that, USAID forced pre-approved humanitarian aid groups to wait for a decision or technical assistance for a grant application until mid-July or later. This is completely unacceptable and there must be immediate course correction.

In addition, the administration has two other opportunities to help deliver food aid more quickly. First, it could waive freight preference mandates to speed up the delivery of food to a hungry and unstable world. Cargo preference laws require that 50% of food aid travel on a US-flagged vessel with US crews. Congress continues to deliberate on a bipartisan measure I drafted to temporarily lift cargo restrictions during this dispute. Yet the president could waive those preferences today, cutting costs and speeding up delivery right now.

Second, our Department of Defense should allow the US military to train Ukrainians on how to clear the Black Sea – but, again, bureaucracy gets in the way. Through my efforts under the National Defense Authorization Law, I hope to reduce this bureaucracy and again speed up the transportation of grain through the port of Odessa.

The question remains: will the current administration find the will to stop the Russian military campaign through Ukraine, curb a large-scale humanitarian crisis, and prevent global unrest and mass starvation? They must. Without a change in strategy from the United States and our allies, Putin will continue to take advantage of a global food shortage in exchange for sanctions relief.

China is watching. The Gulf States, South America and African nations are weighing their commitment to the free world against the economic and security guarantees on the table of our adversaries. Our national defense capability and reliability diminishes as our adversaries can call our bluff and see that we cannot bear the cost of keeping our end of the bargain.

Senator Joni Ernst is the young senator from Iowa, the first female combatant elected to the United States Senate, and serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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