Jun 22, 2022 - World

U.S. accuses Russia of weaponizing food disinformation in Africa, Middle East

Ukrainian soldier walking past a destroyed barn

A Ukrainian soldier walks inside a barn destroyed by Russian shelling near Zaporizhzhia. Photo: Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Russian government and its proxies are targeting Middle Eastern and African audiences with a "massive disinformation campaign" blaming Ukraine and the West for the global food crisis, the State Department alleges in a new report obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: Russia's blockade of the Black Sea is preventing millions of tons of grain from leaving Ukraine. The regions in the global south most heavily impacted by unprecedented food shortages are being flooded with false Russian narratives deflecting responsibility and pinning the blame on Western sanctions, according to the report.

Zoom in: The report, set to be released by the State Department's Global Engagement Center on Wednesday, identifies specific disinformation tactics propagated by Kremlin-aligned actors.

  • In a May 25 Africa Day speech, for example, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged African ambassadors in Moscow to demand the removal of "illegal, anti-Russian" sanctions in order to strengthen food security.
  • In an interview the next day with RT Arabic — which has 17 million Facebook followers and 5.2 million Twitter followers — Lavrov accused the West of neo-colonialism and of blackmailing African and Arab countries to join "anti-Russia" sanctions.
  • The report lists tweets repeating similar claims by Russian embassies in Egypt, Zimbabwe and other countries vulnerable to the food crisis.

Between the lines: The Kremlin has spent the last several years investing "significant resources" in the Global South's media environments, exploiting "anti-colonial attitudes" to present Russia as an "acceptable contrast to historical grievances against the West," a State Department official told Axios.

  • "No. 1, they want to make sure that there's no support for Western sanctions among Global South countries," the official said, explaining the department's analysis of Russia's intentions.
  • "And No. 2, they probably even want the Global South countries to eventually lobby Western countries that the sanctions are causing more harm than good."

The big picture: U.S. sanctions exempt transactions for food, agricultural products, medicine and other humanitarian aid, but Russia has encountered some difficulties with logistics and payments for exports of grain and fertilizer.

  • Senegal's President Macky Sall, who currently chairs the African Union, has urged the European Union to loosen SWIFT sanctions on Russian banks to allow for certain agricultural payments.
  • But UN officials and other experts say the crisis is overwhelmingly being driven by Russia's blockade of the Black Sea.
  • "We are facing hell on earth if we do not respond immediately," the World Food Program's director David Beasley said last week. "The best thing we can do right now is end that damn war in Russia and Ukraine and get the port open."

What to watch: Russia and Turkey are in talks over a UN-brokered plan to open a grain export corridor in the Black Sea, though Ukrainian officials are skeptical Russia would act without an easing of Western sanctions.

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