When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Kyiv’s digital information war sprang immediately to life. The Ukrainians were ready. Since then, their progress in the online conflict has seemed—to Western observers, at least—unstoppable. Ukraine has rallied international support and attracted almost universal sympathy from European and North American users across the major social-media platforms.
All of the country’s official social-media accounts have synchronized to push the same narrative of brave Ukrainians holding out against the brutal Russian invaders—a message that is, of course, essentially true. The campaign is built around Ukraine’s charismatic leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, for a time in March and April, had a solid claim to being the most admired man in the West.
If Ukraine’s effort in the information war has been a triumph, Russia’s has seemed almost as lackluster as the performance of its tank regiments. Moscow has made little attempt—beyond some perfunctory statements about NATO expansion—to make its case to a foreign audience. The primary target of government communications has been the Russian people, the goal to legitimize Russian aggression and ready Russians for a world divorced from the West—with no more McDonald’s, Apple, or Netflix.
The lack of effort to sell the war abroad almost suggests that Moscow knew it would be pointless. The images broadcast by the state news channel RT in the early weeks of the war seemed either clumsy in their denialism or flat-out deluded: Cheerful troops marching along and Ukrainians waving Russian flags pointed to a Potemkin military campaign.
This contrasting split screen led many observers to declare that Russia had “lost” the information war. That is now the received wisdom in the West.
But it is wrong. Moscow has not lost the information war so much as opened up new fronts in the fight elsewhere, away from Western eyes.
Russia is now directing its disinformation at parts of the world where anti-Western sentiment is already strong, countries that include former colonies of the West—above all, in Africa. Anticipating a looming world food crisis, Moscow has coordinated its media outlets and social-media accounts to spin this message: Western sanctions against Russia are to blame for causing the shortages, and Ukraine is deliberately destroying grain supplies.
When I was in Odesa in late April, Ukraine’s most important Black Sea port was already ringed with mines and steel. The fighting nearby, in the south of the country, was fierce. Kyiv’s army was holding up Russian troops outside the city of Mykolaiv, about 70 miles to the east. Odesans were preparing for a long war. Where once I could walk freely along the city’s shoreline, I saw concrete slabs and sandbags and twitchy soldiers eager to stop me from taking photos of anything that they—often arbitrarily—deemed sensitive.
In the distance, bobbing just over the horizon, Russian warships were poised to strike. Until they did, they could take solace in the fact that as long as they continued to patrol Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, the country’s most important harbor could not function.
Even then, in the war’s early months, Moscow’s plan was becoming clear. If Russia could not defeat Ukraine militarily, it would target its adversary’s economy by blockading its foreign trade. The goal was simple: to strangle Ukraine by any means.
One of those means is what Ukraine’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, has called “outright robbery.” In Odesa, I spoke with the Ukrainian security analyst Hanna Shelest, and she told me about Russia’s theft and destruction of her country’s grain stores. Wherever Russian troops went, she said, they stole Ukrainian grain—especially in the south, in the regions around the cities of Kherson and Zaporizhzhya.
As Solskyi told Al Jazeera, this was “happening everywhere in occupied territory.” Back in April, he accused Russia of having stolen “several hundred thousand tonnes” of grain. And what Russian soldiers did not steal, they destroyed. On June 6, Russian forces struck a grain terminal in Mykolaiv, one of the largest in Ukraine, wrecking about 300 tons of grain earmarked for export.
The problem is acute, and not only for Ukraine’s economy. Ukraine is one of the largest global exporters of crops and foodstuffs: According to the International Trade Centre, 8 percent of the world’s wheat, 12 percent of its barley, 13 percent of its maize, and 18 percent of its sunflower-seed oil come from here. The World Food Program sources much of its grain for food-assistance programs from Ukraine. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the losses of Ukrainian grain in the world export market because of Russia’s blockade of the country’s ports, as well as its theft and destruction, will inflict not just rising prices in the rest of the world but severe shortages—particularly in Africa.
Historical precedent suggests that food shortages in Africa, though rarely the sole cause of social unrest, very often contribute to political upheaval. Food scarcity played a significant role in the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw people take to the streets in protests after international food prices soared and unemployment rose. Egypt’s annual food-price inflation had hit nearly 19 percent just before President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. In that region today, the Kiel Institute calculates that Tunisia’s total imports of wheat will go down by more than 15 percent, and Egypt’s will shrink by 17 percent. The institute also forecasts that South Africa will cut its imports of wheat by 7 percent and of other grains by more than 16 percent. The result will be a food-security crisis on the continent.
Russia has already laid the groundwork for its disinformation response. “How the UK is Doing Its Best to Stir a Food Crisis While Pinning the Blame on Russia,” ran the headline of a June 24 article on the Russian state media outlet Sputnik. This is a complete fabrication, of course. I recently attended a briefing session with Western diplomats, at which, to enable them to speak freely, journalists were not to attribute quotes. “We do not impose sanctions that restrict trade in food and fertilizer from Russia and to any third countries,” said one of the diplomats, “so it’s not sanctions that are causing food-security issues.”
But Russia’s denial of the effects of its aggression is only one part of the Kremlin’s emerging strategy. RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, recently relayed to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum what she called “a very cynical joke that appeared—not even a joke, just an outcry—in Moscow”: “‘All our hope is in the famine’ … It means that the famine will start now, and they [Western nations] will lift the sanctions and be friends with us because they will realize it is unnecessary.”
Simply put, Russia’s strategy is blackmail. Moscow will block the export of Ukrainian grain until it gets the relief from sanctions it badly needs. The Western diplomats were unambiguous about what they saw. As one of their number put it: “Russia is doing this on purpose—to try and leverage the [grain] issue to cause the famine, thereby creating chaos, which will lessen the sanctions. Putin has been extremely clear that grain exports will begin when sanctions are relieved. This is the public position of the Russian government.”
Another factor comes into play: Russia is also Ukraine’s greatest competitor as an exporter of grain. Moscow’s plan is not just to hold the threat of food scarcity over the world, but then to cast itself as the savior, appearing in the nick of time with its own grain supply—much of it stolen, of course—in exchange for diplomatic support for its war. With rising commodity prices already hitting African nations’ poorest citizens hard, Moscow’s gambit will surely find a receptive audience. Yevhen Balytskyi, the pro-Russia governor of the occupied areas of Zaporizhzhya, recently announced on the social-media app Telegram that 7,000 metric tons of grain would be sent to “friendly” countries. The quid pro quo is as clear as it is obscene.
Ukraine has belatedly realized that it needs to respond to the way Russia is weaponizing global hunger to further its political aims. Last month, President Zelensky gave an address to the African Union in which he told its members that their continent was now “a hostage” in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
I recently spoke with Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, Ghana’s minister of information, who is a prominent figure in the fight against disinformation in Africa. He was in no doubt about the crisis facing the region. “It is bad enough that war has broken out, but to block grain exports, which causes a food crisis in many parts of the world, especially Africa, is most troublesome,” he said. “In Africa, the situation is getting extremely worrying, as many households are increasingly struggling to feed themselves. In some countries, shortages of staples have begun. Lives are at risk.”
Nkrumah understands how serious the threat from a Russian disinformation campaign is. “We are doing our best to let our people know the true causes of this crisis, and also to show them the ways by which we can contain the situation and even where possible to switch to local alternatives,” he said. “But I must say this is very difficult as, once again, disinformation is emanating from some of the various nations responsible for this crisis—which is driven by Western social-media tools in particular, just as the crisis is driven by Western battles.”
Earlier this month, I visited Kenya to investigate these issues. In the capital city of Nairobi, fears among the population about rising food prices were everywhere apparent, even if they have not yet reached desperation level. Russian narratives are flooding Kenyan online spaces, starting with major, official sources: On April 16, the national broadcaster NTV Kenya shared a story on its Facebook page headlined, “Russia to Kenya: Blame US and EU for High Food, Fuel Prices.”
Such messaging—amplified by Russian-embassy accounts—percolates down to Kenyans’ Twitter accounts, where, recently, pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiment has become much more obvious. For example, a tweet pinned by one Jonson Mwangi, whose Twitter handle suggests he works for an NGO in Nairobi, shows images of Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Syria, supposedly before and after U.S. intervention. The tweet text reads: “Does this ring a bell? I wonder where you find the moral authority of speaking against Russia … Russia anexted [sic] Crimea and rebuild it to great city..look at all your former invasions; women were raped, infrastructure destroyed, a well developed economy was destroyed in the name of?”
Russia’s instrumentalizing of the grain crisis is the latest instance of its wider strategy of exploiting instability to enact what the U.S. State Department has called “perpetual adversarial competition.” In the digital arena, Moscow’s information and disinformation operations seek to plant, amplify, and perpetuate insidious, corrosive narratives designed to undermine the West and democracy, and to promote Russia as a better partner for African nations.
“Everything is getting more expensive. Now I hear we may have problems with our food,” a Nairobi taxi driver named Gilbert told me. “Once again, Africans are paying the price for problems among the great powers.”