Is hunger a legitimate weapon in war?

Some countries, especially in Africa, depend on Ukrainian grain. Urgent measures need to be taken to avoid the catastrophic consequences of the war in Europe.

21 JUNE 2022 · 09:58 CET

Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">S. Goodwill</a>, Unsplash, CC0.,
Photo: S. Goodwill, Unsplash, CC0.

Sanctions cause hunger

Russia invaded Ukraine, causing the world to fight back economically by sanctioning the Russian economy and the presidential elite around Vladimir Putin. Almost 1,000 leading companies from the whole world reduced their activities or even completely stopped to deal with Russia [1].

In turn, Russia blocked her grain delivery and closed the Ukrainian port of Odessa, the main grain shipment terminal of the country. The effects on the Russian, as well as world economy are huge.

The sanctions, as it looks will cause a major hunger problem in the world. Together “Ukraine and Russia account for 30% of global wheat exports, 20% of global corn exports and 76% of sunflower supplies, so any disruption in production or supply could drive prices up. Additionally, sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas will inevitably drive-up energy prices – limiting access to food for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, many of whom are already facing super-high inflation”, claims the World Food Program [2].

According to the United Nations: “With Ukrainian ports closed and Russian grain deals on pause because of sanctions, 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of corn are currently frozen in Russia and Ukraine. The ripple effects of this will be felt especially by Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Syria – all countries that are vulnerable to any hold-up on wheat imports and are already reeling from the combined effects of conflict, climate change, COVID-19 and rising costs” [3].

Some countries, especially in Africa, completely depend on Ukrainian grain. Experts warn of an unprecedented hunger wave already now affecting countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria and others. Urgent measures need to be taken to avoid the catastrophic plague. Some estimate that the numbers of those who might die of hunger outside of Ukraine be multiple times higher than the victims of the war in Ukraine itself.

“Russia plays hunger games with the world by blocking Ukrainian food exports with one hand and trying to shift the blame on Ukraine with the other,” says the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba [4]. The question is, are such “games” in a war situation allowed? Is Russia, the war initiator, legitimized by the international war law to respond to economic sanctions against its own country and economy by endangering millions of innocent people in several countries to starve of hunger? President Putin keeps insisting that the hunger situation is caused by Western sanctions against Russia. And he is, sadly to say, partially right.


Sanctions - Economic weapon goes global

Sanctions in a war situation were originally designed to exercise pressure on a nation starting an aggression against another nation. The US president Woodrow Wilson described sanctions as “something more tremendous than war”: the threat was “an absolute isolation . . . that brings a nation to its senses just as suffocation removes from the individual all inclinations to fight . . . Apply this economic, peaceful, silent, deadly remedy and there will be no need for force. It is a terrible remedy. It does not cost a life outside of the nation boycotted, but it brings a pressure upon that nation which, in my judgment, no modern nation could resist” [5].

Sanctions as described by Wilson were called an “economic weapon”. Wilson clearly saw the enormously destructive power of sanctions. He held that if “thoughtful men have . . . thought, and thought truly, that war is barbarous, . . . the boycott is an infinitely more terrible instrument of war”. [6]

Sanctions in the more peaceful understanding of that statement could be a step of advocacy, an attempt to express a disagreement with a violent way of redeeming evil with evil but seeking a reasonable way to deescalate by showing that there are other ways than killing civilians. History though shows that this non-violent approach is sadly seldom sought.

Used in the first and second World War it proved to be a potent weapon, able to bring the enemy to their knees, but it also caused deep economic devastation. Even in peaceful times, sanctions brought more harm to civilians than the elite of a given sanctioned state [7]. Sure, in theory the effects of sanctions could be more or less limited to the particular nation and her alias.

Russia's war in Ukraine brings a different dimension to the economic weapon the Western world uses against Russia and Russia in turn against the West – it expands the deadly effects to the whole world, escalating the split between the “have and have-not's” even further. The oil and gas sanctions already turn many markets in Europe and the World in turmoil. But the grain crisis will cause unprecedented harm the poorest of the poor, who rely on grain from Ukraine as well as Russia. If nothing else happens, millions of innocent people in Africa, the Middle East or Afghanistan will die of starvation. Among them millions of children.

The economic weapon ones designed to exercise pressure on a given aggressor goes global. The once helpful globalized world has become dangerously interdependent which has become obvious through the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Local conflicts grow into global disasters and make the vulnerable and those who suffer from the conflict hurt more though they have not been contributing to the conflict at all. One may ask, are sanctions still morally justifiable in a globalized world such as the world of the 21st century? And if not, are there better ways to apply pressure on a given aggressor, such as Putin's Russia?


Are sanctions a morally justifiable weapon?

The proponents of sanctions argue that economic sanctions dry the aggressor out of financial resources, which limits the military power and weakens the aggression. It is understood that the greater civil society of the nation is also suffering including the intention to increase an internal pressure against the war mongering. This is often taken for granted.

But what about the collateral hunger following a war in countries far removed from the parties in war? In a highly globalized world, the global supply chains interrupted through a war in one region, may cause a disaster in another one. How does one avoid such collateral disasters and is it acceptable to use sanctions as weapon in such situation at all? The world surely would not accept collateral bombing of a third country as a legitimate instrument of war. Sanctions are even more dangerous than such bombs. Why then do we accept sanctions and at the same time avoid any global expansion of war?

We need to rewrite the UN papers on the law of war by naming clear restrictions on the use of sanctions and defining ways to move beyond dangerously weak food supply chains. One has to ask if the makers and executors of these policies benefit in return of the sanctions by putting them into a questionable “benevolent” status of becoming a savior to the poor by acting against the violence, but instead of saving the hurt, even putting their own economies first.

The current situation disables Russia and Ukraine to offer food to the hungry, due to numerous sanctions. One might expect Russia to drop their blockage of Odessa and allow the shipment of grain under the auspices of the UN. Humanitarian corridors are common praxis in war to save lives of civilians. Why not in terms of economic pressures?


Proposing a way out

The World Evangelical Alliance views itself as a mediator between the front lines and is especially interested to avoid a humanitarian disaster or even a famine beyond the actual war field. If asked, the Alliance could organize and secure humanitarian corridors for food supply from Ukraine and Russia together with other world players such as the Red Cross, World Food Program and UN.

Johannes Reimer is professor of Mission Studies and Intercultural Theology at the University of South Africa and Director of the Department of Public Engagement of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).


1. See list in: “Almost 1,000 Companies Have Curtailed Operations in Russia—But Some Remain.” (New Heaven: Yale School of Management, June 3, 2022). Source (4.06.2022).
2. Source. (4.06.2022).
3. Source. (4.06.2022).
4. Quoted after: Patrick Goodenough: Ukraine Accuses Russia of Playing ‘Hunger Games’ by Blocking Grain Shipments, CNSNews, 2. June, 2022. Digital.

5. Woodrow Wilson: Woodrow Wilson’s Case for the League of Nations. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1923), 67, 69, 71.

6. Ibid., 71-72.

7. See on the effects of sanctions through out history. Nicolas Mulder: The Economic Weapon: The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War. (New Heaven: Yale University Press 2022).

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