Blinken Says Putin Is Using Food Shortages as a Weapon of War

“I think the indications that we have now is that unfortunately, tragically, this is likely to go on for some time.”
Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, thinks that Russia already failed in Ukraine.
Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, thinks that Russia already failed in Ukraine. (VICE News)

Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, thinks that Russia already failed in Ukraine. 

After the United States warned loudly last winter that Russia would invade neighboring Ukraine, Blinken, along with President Joe Biden, have spent the last few months heavily sanctioning Russia, sending artillery and weapons to Ukraine, and shoring up allies to resolve the deadly war. 

As the war in Ukraine moves into a new phase, the Biden administration faces both domestic and global food shortages that are driving prices up for Americans and exacerbating food insecurity in Africa and the Middle East. Ukraine is one of the top producers of wheat in the world, and Russia’s invasion has devastated the industry. 


In an interview with VICE News at the UN mission in New York, Blinken spoke about that crisis, as well as next steps in Ukraine and the shooting of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. 

“I don't have a proverbial crystal ball,” Blinken said about when Russia’s war with Ukraine will end.  “I think the indications that we have now is that unfortunately, tragically, this is likely to go on for some time.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

VICE News: How exactly has Putin's invasion of Ukraine exacerbated the food shortage crisis and how much worse has it made things around the world?

ANTONY BLINKEN: Just a couple of years ago, there were about 100 million people in the world who were food insecure or not getting what they needed for their basic sustenance. That jumped up to about 160 million people this year before Russia's aggression. And now, by objective analysis from the World Bank and others, Russia's aggression is likely to add about 40 million people to that list. 

And the reason is this. Ukraine is one of the leading producers of, among other things, wheat in the world. Russia, of course, is a large producer itself. And in Ukraine, there are literally tens of millions of tons of wheat that are stuck there because Russia's blockading Ukraine's ports. There are about 85 ships right now with grain, wheat in them. They can't get out. There are another 22 million tons of wheat in silos near the ports that can't get there. Ukraine's farmers have been forced to to fight for the freedom of their country or to flee. Those that are still farming, probably do it with a flak jacket and a helmet on to avoid incoming Russian missiles. So all of this has had the effect of creating less food on the world markets. Prices have gone up and that's had ripple effects way beyond Ukraine, virtually in every part of the world. 


What is the U.S. going to do about it? Are we going to send warships into the Black Sea to help free these ships with all these silos of grain on them?

The first thing we're doing about it is addressing the immediate needs. So just since Russia's aggression began a couple of months ago, we put about $2.3 billion into food security around the world to help countries that are suffering try to deal with the problem. 

At the same time, President Biden's been working to incentivize the production of fertilizer. Now, the reason for that is there's also a fertilizer shortage because a lot of that is produced in the region. That means that as farmers are thinking about next year's crops, if they don't have fertilizer, the yields are going to go down. So there's going to be even less food on the market and andprices go up even more. So the President put about $500 billion into incentivizing the production of those fertilizers in the United States. At the same time, we're getting the international financial institutions to help countries that are suffering from this financially be able to deal effectively with the problem. 

And finally, we're putting a lot of resources into long term resilience and agricultural capacity around the world. So that's what we're doing on the food side. 

Does that mean the US will step in and do this with warships in the Black Sea?


So when it comes to the Black Sea itself, we're looking at other countries. We're looking at-the United Nations are looking at—what is possible, what arrangements might be possible to allow the ships to leave safely and to start to bring all of this to world markets. We're looking at that very actively.

U.S. inflation is high here, right now. Food prices are up 9.4% in just the last year, according to the Department of Labor. If this Russia blockade continues in Ukraine, should we expect to see prices keep climbing here in the U.S. domestically?

One of the effects that we've seen across the board with commodities, with energy from Russia's aggression in Ukraine. Yes—it is raising prices. We've seen that on the energy side. We see that on the food side. It's one of the reasons that we're going to continue to do everything we possibly can to bring this war to an end. Unfortunately, thus far, Russia's shown little interest in that.

But that's why we have to continue our support for Ukraine to give them the strongest hand that they can play in repelling the Russian aggression and ultimately at a negotiating table, because eventually there will be one. It's why we need to continue to keep the pressure on Russia to stop what it's doing. And it's why we need to continue to strengthen our own defenses in case there's Russian aggression directed elsewhere. We're doing all of that. But the purpose is not to perpetuate the war. The purpose is to end the war. The purpose is not to expand the war. The purpose is to stop it. Unfortunately for now, that requires keeping this pressure on Russia and sustaining our support for Ukraine. 


So until the war ends, you think we're still going to be feeling it here, Americans will be feeling it in their wallets here in the U.S.?

We're taking significant measures to deal with some of these pricehocks that we're seeing, again, for food and especially for energy. The president did a historic release from our petroleum reserve, a million barrels a day for six months to make sure that there's plenty of energy on the markets because we produce a lot of it. And to make sure that that also keeps prices down. We're redirecting energy, including liquefied natural gas to Europe, to make sure that as Europeans are moving away from their dependance on Russian energy, that they can fill the gap and that that, too, doesn't have a big impact on prices. So we're taking a lot of significant steps to keep this in check. The most effective thing, though, would be Russia ending its aggression against Ukraine.

You were in Kyiv recently, about a month ago, and you said that Russia is failing, Ukraine is succeeding. What is your assessment now?

That remains the case. Here's what's important: Putin's number one objective in going into Ukraine was to erase its independence, erase its sovereignty, to bring Ukraine fully back into the Russian fold, to make it part, in some fashion, of Russia. That's already failed. We see that in the extraordinary courage and conviction of the Ukrainian people. We see that in the fact that they've repelled this aggression. We see it in the fact that they are more unified than they've ever been. 


And I can safely say, as I've said before, that an independent, sovereign Ukraine is going to be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene. So by that measure, Putin's own measure, he has already failed. He also tried to divide the West and divide NATO, it’s had exactly the opposite effect. The alliance is more united than it's been. Other new countries are knocking on the door to join the very thing that President Putin has tried to prevent. 

How did he get this so wrong? How did he miscalculate this so badly? 

It's very hard to fully put yourself in the mind of anyone else. 

What are you hearing intelligence wise? 

Well, we had, of course, very good information about Russia's planned aggression in the first place, which we shared with the world. A lot of people were skeptical. And it's one of those things where, as I said, I wish we'd been wrong about it, but we were right. But we don't have a way of reading his mind, or knowing exactly what he's thinking. All we can do is judge him by his actions. By Russia's actions. That's what we're focused on. 

Last week, the director of National Intelligence told Congress that Putin could use a nuclear weapon if he feels the conflict in Ukraine is going badly and endangering his position back home in Russia. Do you agree with that? Are you worried about that? 


As recently as this year, including here at the United Nations, Russia reaffirmed the proposition that nuclear war should never be fought and can never be won. So that has been their stated policy. When you hear loose talk about nuclear weapons, it's the height of irresponsibility. And of course, we listen and watch very carefully to see if anything is being done that could pose a new threat to our security. We haven't seen that. But loose talk about nuclear weapons is, again, the height of irresponsibility. 

So should the DNI not have said that?

No, the DNI is laying out very clearly what she sees. This is something that she does every year, laying out the different challenges and threats. We have to account for some of the things that Russia says. But again, we're also intensely focused on what they're actually doing or not doing. 

Is there a way back for Putin into the diplomatic fold, into polite society around the globe?

Well, the first order of business is to stop the aggression. And that's what we're focused on. What comes after that? We'll see. But, you know, what we've seen in the brutalization of Ukraine is something that people will remember and take account of for a long time- beyond even when this aggression ends. And one of the things that's going to be very important, irrespective of anything else, is to do whatever we can to try to ensure that this can't be repeated, whether it's in a year or two years or five years.


When do you see this conflict ending? I think that's the question a lot of people have. 

I don't have a proverbial crystal ball and I think the indications that we have now is that unfortunately, tragically, this is likely to go on for some time, certainly for some months. Russia's aggression has been pushed back from Kyiv, from Western Ukraine, from Northern Ukraine. But there's still very intense fighting along the south and the east of Ukraine. But Ukrainian forces are doing that with remarkable courage, remarkable resilience. And the support they're getting from us, from some 40 countries, has given them a very, very strong hand. 

But most important of all, they're fighting for their freedom. They're fighting for their independence. That motivator, I think, is the biggest difference maker, because a lot of the Russian forces that have been sent to Ukraine don't even know why they're there. And the biggest tragedy of all, on top of the tragedy for the Ukrainian people, that's number one. But the other tragedy is this- how is what Putin's doing, doing anything for the Russian people? How is it making their lives better? How is it answering their needs? It's not.

Is there a possibility that Putin is using the food shortage as a weapon of war? Do you see a situation where parts of Ukraine have to capitulate because there are no ways to get food or  water? 


We do see that in individual places. You're exactly right. Putin has been using food as a weapon of war, which contravenes every obligation they have internationally, including various U.N. Security Council resolutions, and, of course, contravenes their moral obligations just as human beings. But, yes, we're seeing that. And yes, in certain places where we're seeing that effect of Mariupol, for example, people have had to leave or try to leave in part because they simply can't get food, it’s being denied and the cities are being, in effect, blockaded. So yes, that is a tool. But the larger trajectory that we've seen is, again, the Ukrainians pushing the Russians back, pushing the Russians out, defending their country, defending their freedom. 

Will the US- in either the U.N. situation here at the Security Council, which you will now be presiding over this meeting today and the U.S. as the head of-ll Putin be held accountable for any of this? 

We just saw a Russian soldier who committed an atrocity in Ukraine be prosecuted and ultimately plead guilty. We are supporting efforts by the Ukrainian prosecutor general to document, to build cases and ultimately to prosecute war crimes, whether it's next week or next month or in five years, however long it takes. We are supporting other efforts that are out there to do the same thing. We helped stand up a commission at the Human Rights Council, because the United States is back at the U.N. Human Rights Council, we were able to lead in the formation of the Commission of Inquiry to look into war crimes in Ukraine. And the bottom line is this—however long it takes, we will support efforts to hold people accountable. Those who committed atrocities, and those who ordered them. 


Last week, journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed in the West Bank. Her news organization, Al Jazeera, holds Israel’s military responsible for this. Israeli media is reporting that the IDF is not going to be conducting a criminal investigation into her death. Her family is asking the U.S. to lead this investigation. Will you?

There should be a thorough investigation of her death. I've spoken to her family. 

Who will conduct that? Who do you want to see conduct that? 

That remains to be seen. But we need a thorough investigation and a credible investigation into the death. We will look to see who's best placed to do that. That does need to happen. And her death was a real loss, a loss for Palestinians, a loss for the broader international community. She's been an extraordinary reporter over many, many years. 

And for the free press too.

A free press, indeed. 

If it were to be revealed that the Israeli military was responsible for this killing, what kinds of consequences would there be? 

I'm not going to get into hypotheticals and prejudge the future. But again, there needs to be an investigation. And if wrong was done, there needs to be accountability.