War in Europe
Geopolitics Made Tangible

A Ukrainian soldier of the 72nd Brigade sits on a tank in the direction of Vuhledar village in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine

A Ukrainian soldier of the 72nd Brigade sits on a tank in the direction of Vuhledar village in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine

© picture alliance / AA | Diego Herrera Carcedo

For the second consecutive year, Russia is using hunger and suffering in the Global South as a pressure tactic to force Ukraine's supporters to give in. For the second year in a row, Ukraine's agricultural infrastructure has been specifically targeted – unfortunately, with some success. The port city of Odessa, both a cultural and economic hub, has been repeatedly targeted by Russian missile attacks in recent weeks.

The Victims

In addition to damaging the St. Panteleimon Cathedral (UNESCO World Heritage Site) and civilian buildings, the port and storage infrastructure were attacked and partially destroyed. This has immediate economic consequences for Ukraine. The attacks on Odessa alone resulted in the destruction of over 60,000 tons of grain. Even during the war, the Ukrainian agricultural sector contributes approximately 8 percent to the country's GDP – making these unlawful attacks on civilian infrastructure a direct blow to the already suffering Ukrainian economy, affected by the war, destruction, and the impact on the working population.

Global Market Impact

Beyond the direct economic damage to Ukrainian agricultural cooperatives, shipping companies, and trading firms, the Russian bombardment has significantly diminished survival prospects for many of the poorest countries in the Global South. The destruction of port infrastructure is likely to have lasting and devastating consequences on global food security. Ukraine is among the world's major producers of wheat, barley, and other grains, as well as oilseeds like sunflower. As a result, the reduction in Ukrainian exports will significantly shrink the supply in world markets. Additionally, the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June and the resulting damage to agricultural lands will have consequences for the global food market, leading to strong price increases – with a particularly harsh impact on financially weaker countries. Furthermore, established trade and trust relationships between Ukrainian agricultural traders and importers in many African countries have now been disrupted. Before the war, several hundred thousand tons of wheat were flowing to countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda, and Mozambique. These disruptions directly affect the food supply and grain prices in some of the world's poorest countries.

The Agreement

As if that were not enough, Russia unilaterally canceled the grain agreement signed with Ukraine last year under Turkish mediation. This means that grain freighters heading to Ukrainian ports can no longer expect safe passage. In other words, ships trading with Ukraine are at risk of being sunk by the Russian Navy, effectively nullifying any maritime trade prospects for the foreseeable future.

Infrastructure Obstacles

Consequently, the only remaining option for exporting Ukrainian goods is through land routes. While this may be a viable alternative for high-value products, it is not practical for transporting bulky agricultural raw materials. The additional trade volume would overload the already strained road and rail infrastructure. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks such as bridges, ferries, and border crossings, which sometimes lead to days-long traffic jams, would worsen, affecting not only trade but also convoys carrying military material and support for the civilian population. Thus, urgently needed deliveries could be delayed, weakening Ukrainian defenders on the frontlines.

Cost Trap

Moreover, the resulting increase in transportation costs significantly reduces the competitiveness of Ukrainian agricultural products in international markets. Shipping goods by sea is much cheaper per ton compared to other transport methods. Consequently, exporting beyond a certain distance may no longer be economically viable. This, in turn, affects the economic margin that Ukrainian agricultural products can achieve, further weakening the Ukrainian economy.

Strained Partnerships

This situation also brings up a political argument: The land route will inevitably lead Ukrainian agricultural products through friendly, western neighboring countries. These countries will either load the goods onto ships for further export or process and market them locally as quickly as possible. This creates competition between local agricultural products and those of Ukrainian origin, putting economic pressure on farmers in the neighboring countries. This additional competition could lead to animosity towards Ukraine and ultimately sway sentiments. Given the significant military and civilian support Ukraine has received, particularly from Poland, during the conflict, this political aspect should not be underestimated.

Overall, the missile strikes, coupled with the effective trade blockade, have devastating effects on the Ukrainian economy and the Global South.

Russian Perspective

At the same time, the Kremlin regime benefits in several ways from the conditions it has created in the neighboring attacked country. Russia's agricultural sector is also among the world's largest. With the forced reduction in supply from Ukraine, global prices for agricultural products increase. Additionally, trade in agricultural products between Russia and third countries is explicitly not included in the Western sanctions regime. As a result, Russian agricultural exporters face no obstacles or barriers and can market their products under excellent conditions, gaining much-needed foreign exchange.

Migration Pressure

Furthermore, as outlined above, the food supply situation in some African countries worsens. Rising food prices increase migration pressure and the need to secure livelihoods elsewhere, especially towards Europe. This adds to the already strained domestic situations in many European countries due to migration. Such a scenario could worsen cohesion within the EU and weaken support for Ukraine – both of which play into the Kremlin's hands.

Russian "Soft Power"

Additionally, the new situation provides Russian diplomats and officials with a broad range of actions. They exploit the plight in the Global South to expand and solidify Russian influence. Armed with relatively cheap grain deliveries and loans, Russian representatives now approach nations in Central, East, and West Africa to increase their existing influence. Where gifts and bribes don't achieve the desired results, other methods are applied.

Mercenary groups like the Wagner Group have long operated in the heart of Africa. As in Ukraine, the group is infamous for its brutality and ruthlessness. Whether in gold or cobalt mines, the exploitation of precious woods, or the trade of alcohol and drugs, the Wagner Group has secured lucrative businesses in Central Africa. The business model is relatively straightforward: Russian elite mercenaries train the militias of warlords and dictators and often fight alongside them, earning the organization mining and extraction rights in the controlled territories. Unfortunately, the local population is forced into slave labor, and human rights violations are commonplace. Since the failed coup attempt involving the Wagner Group, they have withdrawn from combat operations in Ukraine and are presumably now primarily active in Belarus. This creates new capacities to deepen and expand the organization's businesses in Africa.

Additionally, the impending famine will exert civilian pressure on governments and potentates in Central Africa. Consequently, the Russian leadership gains the ability to apply both carrots and sticks. Nations complying with Russian interests can expect favorable conditions in agricultural trade. However, those resisting Russian influence should expect the full brutality of a battle-hardened and ruthless mercenary organization. Many Western partners advocate for declaring the Wagner Group a terrorist organization due to its actions.


Recent coups in Niger and Sudan may be linked to this Russian strategy. As a result, the individual regions and countries of the Sahel zone are falling under the influence of autocratic powers in the East. Niger, in particular, was considered a key anchor for the European Union's Sahel strategy due to its close ties with France. However, the recent coup celebrations in Niger's capital, Niamey, have been accompanied by the display of Russian flags. This is likely to be seen as a challenge to French interests. In the past, France sourced a significant portion of the uranium needed for its nuclear power plants from Niger's mines. The coup regime announced its intent to suspend these uranium exports, further benefiting Russia by destabilizing the region. This partly explains why representatives of some African countries have increasingly voted in favor of Russian interests at United Nations meetings, despite their citizens' opposition to the Russian war in Ukraine. However, it is not guaranteed that this will remain the case in the future.

Liberal Responses

The German proverb "Can't see the forest for the trees" is particularly fitting in the context of the current geopolitical situation. The system conflict is much more complicated than the superficial analyses often suggest in public discourse. Nevertheless, liberal democracies have effective responses to the existing situations:

  • Prevent distractions: The Kremlin heavily relies on deception tactics and diversion maneuvers, exploiting technologies like Deepfakes and spambots to distort and confuse public opinion. Liberal democracies should utilize technological and intelligence measures to block such strategies and prioritize resilience in public discourse.
  • Support Ukraine: The main conflict currently burning in the system confrontation is in Ukraine. People there are fighting and dying to defend their homeland and indirectly protect NATO's external borders. It would be morally dubious and against European security interests not to support these defenders with all necessary materials in their fight. Weakening Russian military capabilities also serves to protect Western interests.
  • Enforce sanctions: It is well known that essential components for Russia's war economy, such as semiconductors and chips, are delivered to Russia through third countries like Armenia. Such circumvention methods must be stopped to ensure the effectiveness of sanctions, aimed at weakening Russia's war economy, and preserve the diplomatic arsenal of the West. Reduced sanction effectiveness dangerously limits the political maneuverability in conflicts of interest.
  • Keep the big picture in mind: Political analyses should not get lost in details but maintain a broader perspective. Geopolitical dimensions usually exceed the minor developments on the ground. Consequently, European strategic interests, like the European Sahel strategy, should be examined and strengthened.