Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is executing war plans beyond the battlefield. He is targeting Ukrainian agricultural production, seizing nearly 20% of Ukraine’s grain silos, shutting down more than one-third of the country’s planting season, and blockading 22 million tons of grain ready for export at the Port of Odessa with 400 mines he’s placed around the port.
In Ukraine, more than 14 million people have been displaced and face severe food insecurity. Beyond Ukraine, more than 270 million people across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia rely on Ukraine’s breadbasket. Putin’s calculus is simple: He intends to bring a hungry world to its knees in exchange for economic sanctions relief and territorial gains in eastern Ukraine.
Solving the long-term humanitarian crisis demands that the United States adjust its response. Putin has listened to President Joe Biden say he won’t deliver long-range weapons systems or unleash necessary U.S. energy production to wean Europe off Russian oil and gas. These two policy choices give an enduring advantage to Russia’s military campaign and thus the global humanitarian crisis. Forty billion dollars of congressionally appropriated money will not fix a feeble, overly cautious strategy by the U.S.
Hundreds of volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, World Central Kitchen, Save our Allies, and others are already feeding Ukrainians, treating the wounded, and evacuating the most vulnerable out of the warzone without government support. Getting funding to sustain their operations must be a priority. The U.S. Agency for International Development has received more than $17 billion in funding across two supplemental packages, and large portions of the humanitarian assistance authorized by Congress in March have still not been touched.
Instead of working with capable partners, USAID has chosen to work with the United Nations. This is not a solution, given Russia’s and China’s forceful presence on the U.N. Security Council. Indeed, Russia tried to stop the U.N. from condemning its unlawful invasion of Ukraine by vetoing a resolution to that point earlier this year.
Beyond that, the USAID has forced pre-vetted humanitarian aid groups to wait for a determination or technical grant application assistance until mid-July or later. This is completely unacceptable, and there must be an immediate course correction.
In addition, the administration has two other opportunities to help move food aid quicker. First, it could waive cargo preference mandates to expedite food delivery to a hungry and unsettled world. Cargo preference laws require 50% of food aid to travel on a U.S.-flagged vessel with U.S. crews. Congress continues to deliberate a bipartisan measure I authored to waive the cargo restrictions temporarily during this conflict. Still, the president could waive these preferences today, cutting costs and expediting delivery right now.
Second, our Defense Department should allow the U.S. military to train Ukrainians on how to de-mine the Black Sea — but, once again, bureaucracy is standing in the way. Through my efforts in the National Defense Authorization Act, I hope to cut this red tape and expedite grain through the Port of Odessa once again.
The question remains: Will the current administration find the will to halt Russia’s military campaign across Ukraine, curb a large-scale humanitarian crisis, and prevent global unrest and mass starvation? They must. Without a change in strategy from America and our allies, Putin will continue to leverage a global food shortage in exchange for sanctions relief.
China is watching. The Gulf states, South America, and African nations are weighing their commitment to the free world against the economic and security guarantees on the table from our adversaries. Our national defense capacity and our reliability diminish the more our adversaries can call our bluff and see we cannot bear the cost of upholding our end of the bargain.
Sen. Joni Ernst is the junior senator from Iowa, the first female combat veteran elected to the U.S. Senate, and sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As published in The Washington Examiner.