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The leader of the African Union met with Putin to tackle the food crisis issue

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

This week marked 100 days since Russia launched what it calls its special military operation in Ukraine. While news is often focused on the destruction and the direct human cost of the fighting, we wanted to explore another consequence of the conflict - food insecurity and growing concerns of a global food crisis. From Moscow, NPR's Charles Maynes has been tracking this issue, and he joins us now. Hey, Charles.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Hi there.

NADWORNY: So how did we get into this situation?

MAYNES: Well, you know, when we talk about events in Ukraine and Russia, we're talking about what's often called the bread basket of Europe - and for good reason. You know, this region produces key grains like wheat and corn, sunflower oil and fertilizers, you know, all of which normally make their way around the globe but can't because of the fighting. So Russia's military has managed to seize much of Ukraine's access to the Black Sea shipping ports, and Ukraine says Russian forces are now intentionally blocking Ukraine from exporting some 20 tons of grain. You know, meanwhile, Russia has its problems.

While there are no bans on Russian agricultural exports, there are Western sanctions on Russian banking and shipping, meaning that Russia can't deliver its goods to market either. So we're really stuck. You know, all these products, a third of the global food supply chain of things like, say, wheat simply aren't making their way to market. And suddenly, we're faced with the real prospect of food shortages in many parts of the globe, including among the most vulnerable regions and countries.

NADWORNY: And so what is Russia saying about this? Are they showing any willingness to solve the problem?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the Kremlin's position is that they are offering humanitarian corridors to - for Ukrainian grain but under conditions. You know, they want sanctions lifted on Russian shipping so that their grain and fertilizer can start moving again. And the problem is that linking sanctions relief to the release of food supplies has many in the West and certainly in Kyiv accusing Moscow of blackmail. They say that the Kremlin is weaponizing food resources, a charge Moscow denies, by the way. Yesterday, President Vladimir Putin took a new tact. In a TV interview, he said that there is no problem for shipping Ukrainian grain or at least shouldn't be. Let's listen in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: You know, so here, Putin is saying that Ukraine still has Black Sea ports, like the city of Odessa, through which it could export grain. And he vowed Russia would not attack if Ukraine removed explosive mines now littering the waters to prevent a Russian offensive. You know, Putin also suggested Ukraine could even ship through ports now under Russian occupation or deliver grain through neighboring countries, including, say, Belarus, which is allied with Moscow. But, you know, what rings hollow here is that Putin's pretending as if there's some lull in the conflict, and there is none at all.

NADWORNY: So as concerns over the food crisis have grown, we've also seen some other players get involved to try and help, right? I mean, what's happening there?

MAYNES: Right. You know, the U.N. has been trying to broker a compromise. Also, the head of the African Union - this is Senegalese President Macky Sall - was in Sochi, in the southern city of Sochi to meet with Putin yesterday to tackle the issue. Now, Africa gets a whopping 40% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine so no surprise Sall was trying to woo Putin. You know, he noted that many in Africa had abstained from criticizing Russia over its military campaign in Ukraine. And he appealed for Russia's help, saying, look, this is affecting millions of Africans who live far away from this conflict.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MACKY SALL: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Sall says he agrees with Russia there are two problems - the Ukraine crisis, in other words, the fighting, and Western sanctions. And both have to be addressed if we're going to resolve this food issue. And in fact, following that meeting, Sall issued a tweet claiming some success. He said Putin had promised to facilitate the export of grains to Africa.

NADWORNY: Does that come with conditions? Do we know?

MAYNES: Well, that's the thing - we don't know. You know, Putin could be making this same demand for some sanctions relief or, you know, Putin could be looking at this as a chance to build some goodwill internationally, particularly at a moment when certainly, in the West, there's not a lot of it for the Russian leader.

NADWORNY: That's NPR's Charles Maynes joining us from Moscow. Thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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