Quote Card by Opinion.

Under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 creating a chain of events that destabilized the region and threatened global democracy. In the intervening months, questions surrounding Putin’s precise motives for attacking Ukraine, his potential next maneuvers and his treatment of Ukrainian civilians have plagued the global community.

Putin’s strategy in conducting his full-scale invasion of Ukraine seems to follow a distinct pattern. The Russian president will launch a planned attack with quantifiable outcomes followed by a subtler, more insidious goal. A prime example of this phenomenon is Putin’s intention to first capture the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, as the planned attack and later ensure Ukraine’s “neutral status” as the insidious goal.

The first element of Putin’s aforementioned plan is fairly simple to model and predict. Putin clearly seeks to depose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Analysts have estimated that the war has destroyed approximately $10 billion in Ukrainian business assets and damaged 14,788 miles of road. Putin’s war-path to capturing Kyiv (and his pivot to Donbas) is littered with discernible, calculable destruction.

The ability to assess the damage Putin’s invasion causes helps galvanize the public against these aggressive attacks. President Joe Biden has even gone so far as to publicly release intelligence reports regarding Russian military strategy in an effort to increase transparency.

However, the second element to Putin’s original plan, to demilitarize and neutralize Ukraine, cannot be described by specific metrics. Beyond toppling Ukrainian democracy (which has a quantifiable impact, such as deposing Zelenskyy, adding to the mounting $600 billion in overall economic losses and increasing the already high rate of civilian casualties), Putin proposes a vague ideological takeover whose impacts remain unknown. 

“Neutralizing” Ukraine and absorbing it into the monolithic Russian territory would require Putin restructuring the socioeconomic and cultural fabric of the country. It is extremely difficult to quantify the widespread impact of a weapon that dismantles Ukraine’s core identity as separate from Russia.

Infiltrating long standing institutions like Ukrainian schools, currency and agriculture does not have an estimated impact like that of a ballistic missile or an artillery rocket. However, it can be just as devastating, and regarding the food supply, more catastrophic than any other Russian offensive.

In 2018, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution preventing the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Despite this action signaling a global condemnation of wartime hunger, Putin continues to leverage the food supply against Ukrainians by closing ports, blocking trade routes and decreasing the wheat harvest by an estimated 40%. Not only does disrupting agriculture catalyze widespread famine in Ukraine, it deepens global food insecurity and plunges the country into biological and economic collapse that could last far beyond the end of the invasion.

Since Putin’s first attack on Ukraine, 20 million tons of grain have rotted within the country as a result of a blockade in the Black Sea. Domestically, this disruption has left one third of Ukrainian households food-insecure. Globally, with Ukrainian wheat exports accounting for 9% of international sales, the impact is catastrophic.

With the Black Sea blockade hindering Ukrainian wheat exports, millions of people around the globe face imminent food insecurity and millions of people currently starving are pushed deeper into crisis. Impending famine both within and outside Ukraine destabilizes nations around the globe. Famine directly increases rates of disease, death and malnutrition while mass migration caused by famine causes displacement and a strain on existing social structures.

Beyond the incalculable impact of hunger as a weapon of war in Ukraine, the targeted dehumanization of civilians both within and beyond its border through starvation reveals the sinister ideology behind Putin’s actions.

Putin has three primary reasons for leveraging hunger. The horrific reality of daily starvation physically weakens Ukrainians. Blockading ports and destroying arable land collapses the Ukrainian economy. Disrupting the global supply chain destabilizes surrounding regions.

While the precise impacts of Putin using hunger as a weapon of war in Ukraine are impossible to determine, it is clear that the scope and impact of this action are enormous. With domestic and international consequences that range from dehumanization, disease and death to mass-migration and social collapse, it is clear that hunger is Putin’s most devastating weapon of war.

Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at averycr@umich.edu.