QUESTION: Well, we’re now joined by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss the Black Sea Grain Initiative and food security. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.
Secretary Blinken, thanks so much for making time for Focus on Africa. And I’ll get straight into it. Russia says it will only return to the Black Sea grain deal if reconnected to the SWIFT payment system. And all this is happening with the rising food prices. As it – when you look at this, would the U.S. consider this request?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, take a step back. This initiative never should’ve been necessary in the first place. It was only necessary because Russia invaded Ukraine, and then having invaded Ukraine, blockaded its ports, including Odesa, where most of the grain going to so much of the developing world was leaving from. Türkiye and the United Nations negotiated this agreement, and when it was in effect – before Russia in effect tore it up – some 34 million metric tons of grain was getting out from Ukraine. More than half of that was going to the developing world, to lower and middle-income countries. And of that, two-thirds of the wheat was going to those countries – the equivalent of 18 billion loaves of bread.
So now Russia has torn it up, and yet despite its complaints, if you look at Russia’s exports of food products, they were at record levels. In other words, Russia was exporting more than ever before in its history. So the notion that there is some big impediment in terms of one bank or another not being involved in the process is simply wrong. Russian food products were getting out – we want them to. We want the world to benefit from their grain, from their wheat, just as the world wants to benefit from Ukrainian grain and wheat.
QUESTION: So are you saying the U.S. will not consider that request, in a nutshell?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: What I’m saying is there is now a proposal on the table from the United Nations to Russia to address what it purports to be its concerns. To my – and we support that UN initiative. To my knowledge, Russia has not responded to what the UN has proposed, but we support it.
And by the way, when the initiative was underway, just to make absolutely sure that there were no impediments to Russia getting its own wheat and grain out, I signed letters – what we call letters of comfort – to some of our banks, telling them very clearly there is no problem facilitating these transactions. In fact, as you know, our sanctions from day one exempted Russian wheat, grain, shipping, insurance, everything necessary to move that around the world. As I said, we want everyone’s food and grain to get everywhere it needs to go.
The other thing is this. Besides the countries directly affected, the countries that were directly receiving Ukrainian food products, receiving the grain, receiving wheat, every country in a sense was benefiting from this agreement because having that food on world markets kept prices down. We’ve now seen since Russia got out of the agreement prices go up by 10 to 15 percent. That hurts everyone.
QUESTION: Secretary of State, I want to jump in and get a sense from you on this. So Russia has promised free grain to some of the worst affected countries, especially on the African continent. Isn’t this somewhat a measure of good faith on the part of Russia?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, it’s – I – none of this is a laughing matter, but it’s laughable. What Russia was proposing is – was to get grain to a half dozen countries, about 50,000 tons. The Black Sea Grain Initiative delivered 20 million tons to lower and middle-income countries. In other words, what the Russians were proposing in compensation for getting out of the agreement is a drop in the bucket of what countries were getting and what they need.
And by the way, I was at the United Nations last week. Ninety-one countries signed on to a declaration saying that food should not be used as a weapon of war, and never mind what the United States is saying, country after country – and notably countries in Africa – were all calling upon Russia to get back into the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
QUESTION: Secretary of State, in regions such as the Sahel, food insecurity is particularly driven by instability in the region, where Russia has a lot of interest, for example. So when you see images such as supporters of the recent coup in Niger waving Russian flags on the streets of Niamey, does this concern you?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, of course it’s a concern, because what we’ve seen is that the big drivers of food insecurity that are affecting – that’s – and by the way, there are about 250 million people around the world who are acutely food insecure as we speak – the biggest drivers have been climate change, for a while COVID, and now increasingly conflict, including Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. And at the same time, we see Russia, as I’ve said, taking advantage of some of these conflicts and weaponizing food to try to advance its own interests.
But for sure we have concerns when we see something like the Wagner Group possibly manifesting itself in different parts of the Sahel, and here’s why we’re concerned: because every single place that this group, Wagner Group, has gone, death, destruction, and exploitation have followed. Insecurity has gone up, not down. It hasn’t been a response to the needs of the countries in question for greater security. I think what happened and what continues to happen in Niger was not instigated by Russia or by Wagner, but to the extent that they try to take advantage of it – and we see a repeat of what’s happened in other countries, where they’ve brought nothing but bad things in their wake – that wouldn’t be good.
QUESTION: Secretary of State, for those who support the halting of the Black Sea grain deal or a relook at it, they argue that the West is mainly concerned about Russia’s growing influence over Africa and the issue isn’t just about food supply, bearing in mind only 3 percent of Ukraine’s grain actually got to the African continent. Do you have any views on that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, again, the majority of the grain that was getting out through the Black Sea Grain Initiative – more than 50 percent – was going to developing countries, including many in Africa; two-thirds of the wheat going to developing countries, including countries in Africa; and as I said, the equivalent of 18 billion loaves of bread. But meanwhile, what’s so important is this: Resolving this situation, Russia getting back into the Black Sea Grain Initiative, would be the quickest thing anyone could do to actually effectively address food insecurity.
There is so much more that we need to do and we are doing to address it in a comprehensive way and a sustainable way. Since the Russian aggression, just going back a year and a half, the United States has provided about $15.5 billion to global food security. We are by far the largest donor to the World Food Programme. We provide 50 percent of its budget; Russia, by the way, provides less than 1 percent of its budget.
We’re also very focused on how we make sure that we are giving countries the capacity to produce food themselves on a sustainable basis. When I met a year ago with many foreign ministers from African countries on the margins of a special summit we convened on food security at the United Nations, what I heard from my colleagues was yes, we appreciate very much the emergency assistance, but even more we’re looking for sustainable productive capacity at home. That’s what the United States is focused on. We’re trying to make sure that countries develop the means to produce food for themselves and, for that matter, for their neighbors.
QUESTION: And in the midst of that, the link between stability and food security as well – would the troops of the U.S. stay in Niger if the coup holds?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I don’t want to get into hypotheticals or get ahead of what’s happening in Niger. We strongly support the work that ECOWAS is doing to try to help restore the constitutional order in Niger. I’ve been in close touch with President Bazoum, with many colleagues in the region, including the Nigerian President Tinubu, colleagues at the African Union, and it’s very important that that constitutional order be restored. And right now I think ECOWAS is playing a very important role in moving the country back in that direction.
QUESTION: Secretary of State, thank you so much for your time and thank you for speaking with the BBC’s Focus on Africa.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to be with you. Thank you.