November 3, 2022

Putin and Assad, Partners in Crime: Why Russian Forces Steal Wheat From Ukraine

Russian serviceman standing guard in a field near Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, southeastern Ukraine, 14 July 2022.
Russian serviceman standing guard in a field near Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, southeastern Ukraine, 14 July 2022.

On 29 October, Russia withdrew from Black Sea Grain Initiative, only to announce it was re-joining the deal to ship the much-needed agricultural produce from war-stricken Ukraine to the Global South on the verge of starvation a few days later. Are these machinations, coupled with the systematic theft of wheat and its subsequent delivery to the Assad regime, parts of the same Russian puzzle and the same struggle for the multipolar world order? This paper explains the intricacies and significance of bread in the Syrian Civil War, as well as connects them to the Russian geopolitical strategy, goals, and state doctrines.

With wheat accounting for 37% of daily caloric consumption in the Middle East, political stability and shifting public loyalties have long been linked to affordable and continuous bread supplies. In Syria, subsidised bread is the primary marker of the welfare state’s functioning, while the (in-)ability to provide it has proven to be a crucial factor for the breakaway and the government-held territories alike. Recognizing it as a strategic resource, the warring factions in Syria engaged in a nasty ‘wheat war.’ The anti-Assad opposition—that controls the main agricultural areas and beckons producers with higher purchasing prices—may be better positioned for success, de-facto challenging Damascus as a governing authority. Thus, outperforming one’s adversary in the realm of welfare is an effective counter-insurgency strategy. Whilst waging a brutal Civil War against its own people, Assad’s brutal regime has devoted a tremendous effort to keeping the subsidy system solvent, relied on and received ample support from the Kremlin.

Russia sees the Syrian Civil War from three major perspectives: the pretextual fight against proclaimed terrorists; protecting Assad’s government; and holding geostrategic positions in Syria to exert influence over the Middle East. On the one hand, halting exports serves as a tool of blackmail. Continued wheat supplies to Moscow’s ally in Damascus, on the other hand, positions Russia as a guarantor of stability in a multipolar world—and the Middle East in particular. However, Putin needs to find other providers of wheat to maintain exports to Syria or risk jeopardising his domestic food security policy. And this is why the grain theft from Ukraine is pivotal to achieving the Kremlin’s strategic goals. If Syria and Russia are successful in their joint endeavour, Moscow will significantly advance and strengthen its position in the Global South.

Adequate sanctions, business due diligence, and rigorous scrutiny may counter Russia’s corrupt practices. However, the fastest way to end both the theft of wheat from Ukraine and the brutal regime in Damascus is to boost military support to Kyiv, allowing it to win a swift and decisive victory over the common enemy.

Download and read: Putin and Assad, Partners in Crime (PDF)