DAVOS, Switzerland — Fears of a global food crisis are swelling as a Russian blockade of Ukrainian seaports and attacks on its grain warehouses have choked off one of the world’s breadbaskets, deepening fears that President Vladimir V. Putin is using food as a powerful new weapon in his three-month-old war.
World leaders called for international action — possibly including a naval flotilla to evade the Russian blockade — to deliver 20 million tons of grain trapped in Ukraine. Some warned that unless the port of Odesa is opened soon, there is a threat of famine in some countries and political unrest in others, in what could be the gravest global repercussion yet of Russia’s assault on its neighbor.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, accused Russian troops of confiscating Ukrainian grain stocks and agricultural machinery, Russian artillery of bombarding grain warehouses, and warships in the Black Sea of trapping Ukrainian cargo vessels laden with wheat and sunflower seeds.
“On top of this, Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail, holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support,” Ms. von der Leyen said to an annual gathering of political and business leaders in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
The European Union, she said, was working to open alternative routes for shipments overland, linking Ukraine’s borders to European ports. But with the West reluctant to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia and the world’s food distribution network already creaky because of pandemic-related supply disruptions, freeing up Ukraine’s food exports will be difficult and dangerous.
Among the proposals circulating was one from a Lithuanian government official in which a flotilla of ships, escorted by vessels from non-NATO countries, would try to break the Russian naval blockade off Odesa and escort Ukrainian cargo ships. Countries most affected by food shortages, like Egypt, would supply the escort ships.
At the World Economic Forum, where worries about the war’s ripple effects have already eclipsed almost every other global issue, political leaders and food security experts reached for apocalyptic language to describe the threat.
“It’s a perfect storm within a perfect storm,” said David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Program, a United Nations agency. “If we don’t get the port of Odesa open, it will compound our problems.” Calling the situation “absolutely critical,” he warned, “We will have famines around the world.”