The alarm on Ahmed Karim Khalife’s phone is set for 6 a.m., so the 22-year-old aspiring architect can join the queue that is starting to form early outside his neighborhood bakery in Beirut. The store opens around 7:30 a.m., and nowadays it often runs out of bread at 9 a.m., Khalife said.
“If I don’t wake up on time, my family may not have bread,” he said.
Lebanon’s crushing economic crisis has driven inflation up over the past three years, and the giant Beirut port explosion in 2020 destroyed the country’s largest grain silos, hampering its ability to store wheat. Now Russia’s relentless blockade of the Black Sea amid war in Ukraine – where Lebanon imports more than 60% of its wheat – is deepening the Middle Eastern nation’s food crisis, upending the lives of families like that of Caliph.
The closure of Ukraine’s main maritime gateway to the world is also turning the conflicts in Lebanon into a harbinger of what multiple wheat-importing countries may soon face, experts warn. Moscow accused Kyiv of mining waters outside its ports to deter amphibious attacks, while Ukraine in turn blamed Russia for placing the mines. To strangle Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, Russia has also parked warships outside ports that are still under Kyiv government control.
Result: in mid-May, 20 million tonnes of grain were blocked in Ukraine, the world’s fifth largest wheat exporter. The European Union has launched alternative “solidarity routes” on earth. But these can at best offset a fraction of the volumes that would otherwise have passed through the Black Sea, analysts say.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s hoarded grain could reach 75 million tonnes by autumn, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said – even as the United Nations warned that 49 million people worldwide could face starvation conditions this year.
“If the blockade continues, the world will be in a very delicate food security situation,” David Laborde, senior researcher at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, told Al Jazeera. “For countries directly dependent on Ukrainian wheat, this could be devastating.”
Like Lebanon, Somalia – where poor rains are already pushing 7 million people into critical levels of food insecurity – depends on Ukraine for most of its wheat. But with Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, also struggling to export grain due to the sanctions it faces, several countries that rely on the Eurasian giants for commodities are also vulnerable to hunger. according to analysts. They include Benin, Egypt, Laos, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Tanzania.
Time for the military option?
Some experts say it’s time to explore a military option to help ships break through the Russian blockade. “All that’s missing is the political will of the West,” Edward Lucas, nonresident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera.
But other analysts see the prospects for a successful armed attempt to pass the Russian ships as bleak. “Physically breaking through the Russian blockade would be very difficult, if not impossible to do,” said Marcus Faulkner, lecturer in war studies at King’s College London.
Ukraine lost most of its major warships during the war, Faulkner said. The few that remain would have “no chance against the Russian navy and border guard vessels”, he said. This, in turn, means Western navies should play a leading role. “But that, if there is confrontation, would lead to a major escalation of the war,” Faulkner told Al Jazeera.
Black Sea mines also mean that shipping companies will be unwilling to send their ships near vulnerable ports. “Moored mines can and do drift,” Faulkner said. Clearance through shipping channels would be required before ships could safely cross these waters, he added.
Ukraine has started transporting some of its wheat overland through Poland to the Baltic Sea port of Gdansk, and through Romania to the Black Sea port of Constanta, after which it is shipped to foreign markets. But exporting grain through these corridors is inefficient and will only “dent” the larger problem at best, Lucas said.
Trains and trucks cannot transport as much grain as ships. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, the Russian attacks damaged 6,300 km (3,914.6 miles) of Ukrainian railways.
In addition, Ukraine’s rail network is built on a different Soviet gauge than the rest of Europe uses, said Siddharth Kaushal, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “They have to move the grain to the borders every time, which further complicates things,” he told Al Jazeera.
The longer Ukrainian wheat has to travel to reach its markets, the more expensive it becomes for consumers, Kaushal said. Shipping Ukrainian grain by road or rail through the Polish port of Gdansk, for example, increases costs by 30%, according to research by the Atlantic Council. For desperately poor countries like Somalia or economically struggling nations like Lebanon, this is not easy to sustain.
“We are now numb to the economic pain,” Khalife said in Beirut. “But even we have limits.” Lebanon’s annual inflation rate has remained consistently above 200% throughout 2022.
Russia has hinted that it wants an easing of sanctions in order to lift the blockade of the Black Sea. He also argued that the sanctions, which make ship insurance costs prohibitive, are hurting Russia’s ability to export its own wheat, further limiting global supplies. Meanwhile, Kyiv has accused Moscow of stealing Ukrainian grain from territories under its control. “Russia uses food as a weapon,” Faulkner said.
The United States and Europe have so far rejected requests for sanctions relief from Russia.
But with much of Ukraine’s grain unavailable for the foreseeable future, the world is just one adverse event away from calamitous food shortages that won’t remain confined to a few regions, experts say.
India, which banned wheat exports after a poor harvest, is the world’s largest exporter of rice, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. “If there is a bad monsoon in India or a hurricane that destroys crops in Southeast Asia, we are in a very difficult situation, with nothing to lean on,” Laborde said.
Russia’s math could be even simpler, Kaushal said. The countries most dependent on Ukrainian wheat are also politically unstable. The longer the blockade continues, the more food shortages in the Middle East and North Africa could worsen, which could trigger a new migration crisis directly affecting the Mediterranean countries of Europe.
“It could make some countries want to stop the war at any cost,” he said. “It would test the unity of Europe, which is exactly what Moscow wants.”