Putin’s war on hunger is part of his mass starvation strategy
Last week, the Kremlin confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin is to meet with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Russia “soon.” The purpose of the meeting, according to Turkish ruling AK Party spokesperson Omer Celik, is to discuss the new framework for the grain deal, which was brokered by Erdogan in July 2022 and then terminated by Putin almost a year later.
The deal allowed Ukraine to export grain, which is vital source of food to developing nations around the world, through the Black Sea using Odesa’s seaports. It may be tempting to think that Erdogan has some special powers to convince his fellow authoritarian to restart the deal and prevent world hunger. But that is a false expectation. Weaponizing food security, to coerce Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to capitulate and compel the West to abandon Ukraine in its war against Russia is part of Putin’s strategy of mass starvation.
Using non-military means – even tactics that are considered barbaric by Western standards – is part of Russia’s asymmetric military strategy. This strategy was conceptualized gradually, on Putin’s orders since he came to power more than two decades ago, by the Russian General Staff, the brain trust of the Russian military.
The goal was to offset Western superiority in conventional warfare. Putin’s strategists forecast that sooner or later Russia and the United States will clash in a direct kinetic conflict over what Russia perceives as part of its strategic security perimeter, of which Ukraine is a central and integral part. Today, Moscow believes it is fighting a proxy war with the United States and Europe. And so, it is employing exactly the approach that the General Staff has prepared in advance.
Having assessed that the Russian military could not compete with the U.S. and NATO’s mechanics and tactics of warfighting, Putin’s planners decided that the main target should be the adversary’s mind rather than his military hardware. This is why in Ukraine, Russia has weaponized anything from winter to food and water, destroying Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, in order to freeze Ukrainians in winter and starve them.
The official name of what has become Putin’s playbook is “strategy of indirect action.” The Russian generals borrowed heavily – albeit incorporating despotic methods – from the classic works of the British strategist, former army captain and military correspondent for the Times of London B.H. Liddell Hart (1885-1970). Considered the father of the “strategy of indirect action,” Hart pointed out that the United States’ invention of the atomic bomb in 1945 and the hydrogen bomb in 1952 helped introduce a new guerilla-type warfare in the field of military strategy. Hart believed that “victory” in a “total war” was impossible due to the threat of annihilation by nuclear weapons. So, the menace of “mutual suicide” would prompt strategists to look for “indirect” ways of fighting the opponent, “hamstringing” him in a “limited war” rather than clashing with him directly in all-out, widespread aggression.
Psychological warfare is a critical component of Russia’s asymmetric strategy. Its target is not only Ukraine’s armed forces and its population but also Western – U.S. and European – audiences: populations, heads of state and decision-makers in the military, politics and business. The goal is always to change an opponent’s calculus about fighting, to demonstrate that the cost of fighting Russia will far outweigh the benefits because Russia is prepared to sustain unthinkable casualties – think 25 million in World War II – and inflict unconscionable atrocities on the adversary.
Economic coercion, diplomatic pressure and subversive activities, blockades, “scorched earth,” “sabotage” are all tactics that are mentioned in the official definition of the Russian strategy of indirect action. In addition to the primary goal of crushing the adversary’s will to fight, its secondary aims are to “isolate the opponent from his allies and prevent him from deploying forces.”
We’ve seen this in Ukraine – the industrial sabotage of the Nord Stream pipeline; the targeting of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in order to orchestrate or threaten a nuclear “accident”; striking storage facilities and ports that Ukraine has been using for grain transport, thus threatening global food crisis; capturing Americans in Russia – such as Brittney Griner and Evan Gershkovich – as part of hostage diplomacy; and many other tactics designed to split Ukraine from the West politically and to drive Kyiv, Washington and Brussels to abandon the fight.
The whole concept of indirect warfare was designed to elevate strategy over brute force in warfighting. Hart, whose works the Russians have thoroughly studied, in his classic book “Strategy” characterized “indirect methods” as “the essence of strategy”… that “endow warfare with intelligent properties that raise it above the brute application of force.” The Russians, however, incorporated brutality as an integral part of indirect warfare.
Russia has never bought into the West’s conception of warfare called “Just War Theory,” which stipulates that the war should be fought according to these three principles: 1. Only military and industrial facilities as well as combatants can be targeted; 2. No unjust methods or weapons can be used by combatants (e.g., torture); and 3. Proportionality – the force used should be proportionate to the end goal. “Ends justify the means” is the philosophy that has always guided Russian military science.
In July, the United Nations’ humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths warned that millions of people are at risk of hunger and even death in the aftermath of Moscow’s withdrawal from the Black Sea grain deal. The world is anxiously waiting for the outcome of the upcoming Putin-Erdogan meeting. But Putin’s decision calculus is not driven by compassion. He doesn’t think like an American or a Westerner. Putin thinks like a Russian, a KGB spy master, reigning over the same country as Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin and Ivan The Terrible (who killed his own son).
Putin views the outcome in Ukraine as existential for Mother Russia and for him personally. Starving the world to enforce his red line on Ukraine with the West is a tactic that is perfectly justified in Putin’s mindset and according to Russia’s way of war.