Bread and Autocracy in Putin’s Russia

Issue Date July 2022
Volume 33
Issue 3
Page Numbers 100–14
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Food has been crucial to the survival of regimes since the emergence of early states. Yet despite its significance, until recently food availability was rarely discussed as a principal political issue outside the global South. This essay centers on the political role of food in Putin’s Russia and the Kremlin’s long­­­­­­standing goal of establishing nutritional autarky that would insulate the regime from dependence on food imports. We present the origins of Putin’s food policies, their ideological basis and the forms that they have taken since early 2000s. We also discuss Russia’s use of food as a weapon during the 2022 war in Ukraine.

Food is and has always been political power. When unequally distributed and not universally accessible, food is a potent tool of domination and social control. Yet despite its significance, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, food availability was rarely discussed as a principal political issue outside the global South. Since then, the world has had to grapple with the fallout from two leading grain exporters warring with each other. From the outset of the conflict, Russia has used food both as a shield and a weapon against international interference, with the world’s most vulnerable countries becoming collateral damage. This is not an accident. Since the early days of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s rule, the regime has sought to prevent domestic unrest and insulate itself against potentially crippling Western sanctions by promoting Russia’s food independence.

About the Authors

Janetta Azarieva

Janetta Azarieva is research fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

View all work by Janetta Azarieva

Yitzhak M. Brudny

Yitzhak M. Brudny holds the Jay and Leonie Darwin Chair in Russian and Eastern European Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

View all work by Yitzhak M. Brudny

Eugene Finkel

Eugene Finkel is Kenneth H. Keller associate professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

View all work by Eugene Finkel

Russia’s focus on nutritional self-sufficiency sets the country apart from almost all modern autocracies. While many authoritarian regimes have adopted industrial import-substitution policies, in Putin’s Russia it is the substitution of food imports with domestically produced crops that is crucial for regime survival. Food thus offers an important lens for understanding autocracy in Russia. Recognizing food as a powerful political tool allows us to move beyond the currently dominant focus on institutions or repression for understanding Putin’s grip on power to the broader framework of mechanisms of authoritarian stability.

The outcomes of the Kremlin’s food-import–substitution policies are a mixed bag. Russia’s investment in domestic food production successfully reversed decades of reliance on imports and has positioned the country to better withstand Western sanctions, economic pressure, and geopolitical isolation. But by subordinating the market to political needs, the Kremlin has curtailed competition and concentrated food production among a few well-connected mammoth companies. Thus, despite early short-term successes, in the longer-term food autarky in Russia will be economically unsustainable. Why does this matter?

The emergence, expansion, and collapse of early states was directly linked to the cultivation and storage of grain, an easily accessed and taxed product. Food was a cornerstone of ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses” mode of governance, and the political significance of food has not diminished since. Food insecurity remains a major, and potentially disastrous, source of political and social vulnerability.1

Today, the political importance of food has decreased significantly in the world’s wealthier countries but remains salient in the global South, where “urban bias” in food provision—supplying politically active and better-educated cities with cheap food at the expense of the countryside—still affects state-society relations.2 When governments lose control of food allocation to the cities, they are in peril. In 2008, citizens in dozens of countries, from Indonesia to Morocco and Argentina to Yemen, demonstrated against sharp spikes in food prices. These protests turned violent in several places, with riots toppling the governments of Haiti and Madagascar. Food shortages caused by a severe drought in Russia in 2010 helped to spark demonstrations in Egypt, the primary importer of Russian grain, with huge crowds in Cairo demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice.” Food protests ultimately contributed to the 2011 fall of longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Admittedly, the relationship between food prices and political stability is not linear, but a growing number of studies observe a clear correlation among access to food, political violence, and mass protests.

Supplying cities with cheap food benefits the more politically active urban constituencies in the short term. Over a more extended period, however, urban bias is a source of instability as it drives disadvantaged farmers into the sprawling, impoverished, and politically volatile urban slums. China’s government practiced urban bias, but escaped its long-term dangers with a mix of repression, heavy restrictions on internal migration, and, more recently, growing investment in the countryside.3

Putin chose a different path for Russia, opting for nutritional self-sufficiency to keep the cities fed and the countryside fully employed and satisfied. This strategy bucked the global trend of prioritizing investment in industry and services over agriculture, and it appears to have been shrewd, at least in the short term. But food prices in Russia have been rising over the last few years due to the war and the pandemic, squeezing household budgets, and the regime is beginning to worry. Given Putin’s belief that nutritional autarky is vital to his survival, however, the government can respond only by increasing state intervention in the economy, controlling prices, limiting exports, and thus increasing inefficiencies and exacerbating the very threats that it seeks to address. If Russia’s war on Ukraine and ongoing confrontation with the West are short-lived, then Putin’s gamble to shield Russia from dependence on Western food will have paid off. But if the country’s isolation drags on, the Kremlin is bound to face a severe internal threat.

Food and Politics in Russia

In few countries is the connection between food and politics as pronounced as it is in Russia. Virtually every major development in Russian and Soviet history since the 1917 revolution has either been driven by or closely associated with the question of food. In February 1917, bread shortages, skyrocketing food prices, and subsequent food riots in the capital city of Petrograd sparked a revolution that ended the monarchy. But when the government that replaced the monarchy also failed to increase the food supply, it lost popular support and within months fell to the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution. To feed the cities and the Red Army, the Bolsheviks declared a “food-supply dictatorship” and initiated a statewide grain-expropriation program. A massive famine ensued, in which millions died. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Kremlin sought to achieve control over food production by forcing peasants onto large state and collective farms. The outcome of collectivization was another famine, even deadlier than that of the early 1920s.

On 2 June 1962, Soviet troops fired on a large crowd in Novocherkassk, a city in southwestern Russia, that was protesting high food prices and demanding milk and meat. Spooked by the Novocherkassk Massacre, Soviet authorities refrained from raising staple-food prices for the next 29 years, despite the ballooning expenses of inefficient collective agriculture. As the population grew and farms failed to catch up, the USSR shifted from being a modest exporter of grain to a fast-growing importer, soon to be the world’s largest. The cost of subsidies to the failing domestic agriculture sector, coupled with the need to import massive amounts of food, became a heavy burden on the Soviet budget and prevented much-needed investments in other sectors. This reliance on foreign food suppliers also meant geopolitical vulnerability. When the United States imposed sanctions on the USSR for its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, a grain embargo was a key component, precisely because the Soviet Union depended on U.S. grain.

The USSR’s already severe food problems peaked during perestroika. In the late 1980s, long breadlines and rationing of staple foods doomed President Mikhail Gorbachev’s plans to revitalize communism. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, stores throughout Russia lacked essential products, causing the government to fear widespread famine and state collapse. Feeding the country became the new rulers’ top priority; restocking grocery stores was the primary aim of the painful market reforms of the early 1990s.

Although these reforms, including fully opening the Russian market to imports, filled the empty shelves, they also decimated what remained of the agriculture sector, which could not compete with more advanced and heavily subsidized Western producers. In the minds of Russia’s reformers, however, limited domestic food production and reliance on food imports were not problems. Rather, they were natural, indeed welcome, outcomes of the country’s integration into the global market economy.

Putin understood the political importance of food even before coming to power in 2000. In 1992, as the vice-mayor of St. Petersburg in charge of the city’s foreign relations, Putin quickly emerged as the key figure in what was advertised as a massive government initiative to feed the city. Yet Putin and his circle, almost all urbanites with little understanding of agriculture, had no practical knowledge in this field. In fact, the scheme turned out to be a sham, a corruption bonanza that enriched many of Putin’s future key cronies. The ensuing scandal nearly ended his career just as it was taking off.4

Putin’s Policy of Food Independence

Soon after becoming president, Putin embarked on a path of securing Russia’s food independence from imports. The figure who justified this policy ideologically and played a crucial role in carrying it out was Minister of Agriculture Aleksei Gordeev (1999–2009). Gordeev’s combination of deep professional expertise, bureaucratic skill, and ability to stay out of Kremlin controversies allowed him to translate his profoundly conservative political convictions into policies that transformed Russia’s food politics.

For Gordeev, food supply was a crucial aspect of Russia’s national security. True independence for Russia, he maintained, would be possible only if the country produced at least 80 percent of the food that it consumed. Unsurprisingly, Gordeev strongly opposed the market reforms introduced in the 1990s under independent Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, which led to the decline of Russia’s agroindustrial complex and deepened the country’s reliance on food imports. Imported food, Gordeev argued, was too expensive for millions of impoverished Russians, depleted Russia’s hard-currency reserves, and made the country dependent on, and therefore vulnerable to, Western food supplies.5 Investment in domestic food production would thus make food more affordable while simultaneously making the country safer and the regime more secure.

Two key factors helped Gordeev to achieve his goal. First, the Russian business community, especially grain growers and traders, fully supported increasing the state’s role in promoting and regulating agricultural markets. Second, and even more important, the focus on domestic production echoed two of Putin’s early priorities: increasing state capacity and strengthening Russia’s sovereignty and independence from the West. In the realm of politics, this push led to the concept of “sovereign democracy,” which outlined Russia’s path of political development as different from that of Western liberalism. In agriculture, Gordeev’s ideas offered a practical new path that was independent from Western models and secure from Western pressure.

The first steps for realizing this vision were unveiled already in 2000, when the government announced a new goal: saturating the market with domestically produced chicken, meat, eggs, dairy, vegetables, and potatoes by the end of the decade. The key to achieving this goal was grain—for both human consumption and animal feed. To stimulate agricultural production, the Kremlin adopted a two-pronged approach: First, the government offered low-interest, long-term credit to producers through the state-owned Russian Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank) while Rosagroleasing, another state agency, assisted producers in acquiring advanced Western machinery. Second, the government liberalized legislation, reformed land ownership, and spearheaded investment in storage and infrastructure facilities—predominantly grain elevators, railroads, and a modern grain terminal at the Novorossiysk port on the Black Sea.

Indeed, during Putin’s first two terms (2000–2008), the government invested heavily in the grain sector. Grain production, which had begun recovering from a post-Soviet collapse even prior to Putin’s accession, boomed. Russia eventually stopped importing grain and then became a leading exporter. As the Figure shows, Russian grain exports grew steadily during the 2000s, with wheat becoming one of Russia’s main agricultural export commodities within the decade. By 2018, Russia was the world’s largest wheat provider, responsible for a quarter of global exports.6

The Kremlin used the success of its grain policies as a springboard to promote the more ambitious goal of food independence, which would become official doctrine in 2010.

Food Security, Kremlin-Style

On 30 January 2010, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev (2008–12) signed a presidential decree, the “Food Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation.”7 Although adopted during the Medvedev interregnum, the doctrine was formulated under Putin and fully reflected his political designs. The policy represents the most significant development to date in the evolution of Russia’s food policies. Whereas the standard definition of food security, adopted at the 1996 World Food Summit, views it as individuals’ “physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs,” Russia treats food security as state security.

The decree, which explicitly made food a key national-security concern, was produced by Russia’s Security Council, signed by the country’s president, and signaled the importance of food security by giving the policy the elevated status of a “doctrine.” Currently, the Russian Federation has only seven “doctrines,” all adopted since Putin first came to power in 2000. These are ideological documents covering issues including the military, energy, and climate that are considered crucial to Russian state survival. Taken together, these seven doctrines broadly represent the Russian state’s official worldview.

The Food Security Doctrine became the Kremlin’s ideological statement regarding food-supply policies. Russia’s ultimate goal, the doctrine declares, is independence from food exports and the ability to domestically produce the vast majority of food consumed by Russian citizens. According to the document, food security is an integral part of the Russian Federation’s national security and is important for the preservation of Russia’s sovereignty. The doctrine asserts that Russian national interests require a “necessary” minimum level of domestic food production and sets clear goals for self-sufficiency in grain (at least 95 percent of domestic consumption), milk and dairy products (85 percent), fish, meat, sugar, and vegetable oil (all 80 percent), potatoes (95 percent), and other items. On 21 January 2020, Putin signed an updated, even more ambitious Food Security Doctrine that set higher goals of self-sufficiency and signaled the Kremlin’s continued commitment to nutritional independence.

The main, though unstated, goal of Russia’s push for food independence was to protect the regime in case of a conflict with the West and to prevent the large-scale food shortages that doomed both the Russian Empire and the USSR. When Russia did finally clash with Ukraine, food assumed a central role in the political and economic confrontation.

The Empire Bites Back

The importance of food as a political tool became especially evident in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Between late March and September of that year, the United States, the European Union, and other Western governments introduced multiple sanctions against Russian politicians, media personalities, military commanders, oligarchs, and major Russian state-owned companies. But these penalties did not have the same impact as the 1979 U.S. grain embargo, which sent the Kremlin scrambling to find new suppliers in order to avoid severe shortages.

Instead, Putin introduced sanctions of his own in August 2014. Capitalizing on Russia’s self-sufficiency in the production of key foods, Putin banned the import to Russia of food and agricultural products from the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Norway. In 2015–16, Russia added Ukraine, Albania, Iceland, Lichtenstein, Montenegro, and Turkey to the list of sanctioned countries.

The food-import bans became known in Russia as “countersanctions” (kontrasanktsii). Taken together, the measures covered about 21 percent of Russia’s food imports, worth about US$9.1 billion. Although presented as a temporary retaliatory measure, the bans were part of a calculated and ambitious drive toward long-term import substitution that went well beyond the benchmarks outlined in the Food Security Doctrine. The Kremlin believed that if Russian producers were shielded from foreign competition and had exclusive access to the domestic market, the country could soon replace most banned imported food products with locally produced food.8 In 2014–15, the Russian government openly declared food independence through import substitution to be a major policy goal. In December 2015, in his annual message to the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin declared that all Russian food would be domestically produced by 2020.

In the short term, Putin’s countersanctions paid off. In the absence of competition, Russian producers swiftly assumed almost complete control of the food market. Moreover, the Kremlin presented countersanctions as a patriotic measure aimed at boosting domestic businesses. Thus the shift to domestically produced food did not negatively impact Putin’s popularity. Indeed, by late March 2016, 65 percent of Russians claimed that the food-import ban had not affected their lives in any meaningful way.9

On 21 October 2021, Putin proudly taunted the West: “Thank you, Europeans, for sanctions in the agricultural sphere. Great job, guys! [Thank you] for sanctions more generally. We introduced responsive measures related to agriculture, invested appropriate resources. By the way, not only in agriculture but also in industry’s so-called import substitution. And, I have to say, the effect is good.”10

The reality, however, was more complicated. Countersanctions did push Western food producers out of the Russian market, but the country still imported food from (presumably geopolitically friendlier) Asia and Latin America. Domestic products were also often more expensive and of lower quality than the banned imports, thus stirring frequent complaints from city dwellers. Yet for Putin, the cost and quality of food were less important than its availability. Plentiful domestic production shielded the regime from the threat of Western food sanctions and the danger of not being able to feed the country in the case of a major geopolitical confrontation.

Food Independence and the Pandemic

The second major test of Russia’s food-supply system came in early 2020 with the covid-19 pandemic. The ensuing global health and economic crises spurred a substantial increase in food prices and demonstrated the inherent weaknesses of autarky. But the Kremlin’s food independence also ensured that the global upheaval did not lead to food shortages in Russia and thus did not threaten the regime’s stability. Putin’s response to the crisis—heavy state intervention in the market—clearly demonstrated that the Kremlin views food availability as a key political (rather than economic) concern.

By the time the pandemic hit, Russia was, on paper at least, fully nutritionally self-sufficient. The country was even earning more from agricultural exports than from weapons exports. Some observers believed that sanctions and countersanctions had made Russia impervious to the global trade disruptions unleashed by the pandemic. And, in fact, the food autarky designed to insulate Russia from such tumult did ultimately hold in the face of dual crises—the pandemic and the war on Ukraine—but not easily. Russia’s food system is still well integrated into the world economy and thus affected by global trends.

In Russia, as elsewhere, the pandemic caused real incomes to shrink and consumption to decline. Ordinary Russians had to curtail spending, even on staple foods. To compensate for decreasing domestic demand, food producers switched to exporting, mostly to China. More ominously, as Russian produce increasingly left the country, countersanctions prevented food from the West from coming in. Scrambling to recoup lost profits, retailers responded to decreasing demand by raising prices. Cash-strapped Russians were thus forced to buy less, leading to even larger losses for the food industry. A vicious circle of rising prices, reduced consumption, and growing food insecurity ensued. From March 2020 to March 2021, the average price of staple foods increased by 15.6 percent. The cost of several of the most popular products such as potatoes, sugar, buckwheat, and sunflower oil rose even more substantially.11

Food soon became a source of major political concern for the Kremlin. In March 2021, the Levada Center, the only independent public-opinion–research organization in Russia, reported that 58 percent of Russians considered rising prices to be the country’s most acute social problem. In contrast, only 6 percent viewed the crackdown on democratic rights and freedoms as a significant concern.12

Putin’s response to the crisis demonstrated once again that food supply is a key priority for the Kremlin that outweighs almost all other considerations, and that massive, direct, and repressive state involvement in the market is the preferred approach. In two December 2020 public appearances, Putin blamed food-price increases on greedy domestic producers who used higher global prices to spike domestic ones and promised to get the matter under control. He reassured the public that price increases would be reversed “within days or weeks,” and that the government would monitor food prices closely.13

That same month, the government began issuing restrictive policies to combat rising food prices, including a range of regulations to fix the prices of key staple foods. The package of regulations, presented as a temporary three-month measure, included “voluntary” agreements among the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Trade and Industry, food producers, and supermarket chains to cap wholesale and retail prices, and introduced severe export restrictions on grain (wheat, rye, barley) and corn.

Just weeks after the package was announced, the regulations were rushed through parliament and enacted into law. Authorities began investigating alleged price fixing by food producers, and an agribusiness oligarch who dared to complain about the heavy restrictions was publicly reproached by Putin and found himself subject to a tax audit.14 Notably, increasing competition and reopening Russia’s domestic market to banned Western imports was not even considered.

The economic crisis subsided in 2021, thanks mainly to rising oil and gas prices. Yet the Kremlin showed no inclination to let the market once again determine food prices. In his annual address to the Federal Assembly that year, Putin again pledged to keep food prices affordable and to avoid acute food shortages. The measures to achieve these goals were the same as before: heavy government intervention in the economy and state subsidies.

In 2020, the Kremlin called out allegedly profit-hungry domestic actors and greedy producers and supermarket chains for causing food prices to escalate. But in late May 2021, Putin shifted the blame to wider global trends—that is, external forces15—thus shirking any responsibility for the hardships and providing ideological justification for doubling down and not relinquishing control of food production. Price freezes, price caps, and import bans continued.

Putin’s heavy-handed policies might have been ineffective at preventing food-price hikes, but they did prevent food shortages. In mid-2021, a Reuters reporter visited Novocherkassk to understand why a city famous for a bloody protest in 1962 did not see any antigovernment mobilization in 2020–21. When asked to explain, a local leader replied, “Is there enough food? There’s enough.”16

Food Politics and War

On 24 February 2022, while still grappling with the pandemic, Putin invaded Ukraine. Unprecedented Western sanctions aimed at crippling the Russian economy swiftly followed and continue to expand. They covered multiple key sectors of Russia’s economy and led more than a thousand Western companies to leave the country.17

Interestingly, the sanctions have not targeted the food sector, possibly because Western policymakers recognize that Russia is no longer vulnerable to pressure in this sphere. Yet even without formal sanctions, numerous Western restaurant chains and food producers, including McDonald’s (850 branches, 62,000 employees, and 160,000 suppliers), Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and Coca-Cola, decided to leave Russia. At the same time, four food and agriculture giants—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Louis Dreyfus, and Bunge—declared a scaling down of their local activities, but remained in the country to continue “the production and transport of essential food commodities and ingredients.”18

The war thus quickly overtook the pandemic as the biggest challenge to Russia’s food system. Combined, the sanctions and the sharp decline of the ruble in the early days of the war caused panic buying in major Russian cities. In March 2022, staples such as buckwheat, flour, pasta, rice, salt, and sugar suddenly disappeared from Russian supermarkets. The timing could not have been worse, making this a potential political nightmare for Putin and forcing senior government officials to reassure the public that there was plenty of food in the country.19

Yet even though prices continued to increase, panic buying quickly subsided and Russian food stores remained well stocked. A repeat of the 1979 U.S. grain embargo, issued as a punishment for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is unthinkable in 2022, simply because Russia does not rely on Western products to feed its people. Furthermore, to prevent even the slightest danger of food shortages, on 15 March 2022, the Russian government issued a temporary ban on the export of grain (including wheat, rye, barley, and corn) and sugar. Once again, the short-term focus on nutritional self-sufficiency paid off.

But the war has also exposed the longer-term fragility of Russia’s food-supply system. The sharp rise in prices during the pandemic years accelerated once the war started, and there is little that the Kremlin can do to stop it. As long as Russia’s food industry is integrated into the world economy, sanctions on key Russian banks remain in place, and Western companies refuse to do business with Russia, disrupting supply chains, total government control of the system will remain elusive.

A case in point is the sharp yet predictable increase in the price of sugar since the war began: From February 26 through March 25, it rose by a staggering 41 percent.20 Even though sugar is domestically manufactured, Russia still imports 98 percent of sugar-beet seeds, the main source of Russian sugar. Russia’s Food Security Doctrine concentrated on domestic production, but did little to ensure independence from essential foreign items that such domestic production requires.

The solution was a rapid push for even more comprehensive nutritional independence. So in April 2022, the Kremlin committed to diverting domestically produced fertilizers to Russian agriculture (thus limiting hard-currency revenue from exports) and investing heavily in seed-growing and animal-breeding centers.21 Yet rapid substitution of these crucial imports is problematic, and inferior domestic alternatives might endanger Putin’s food-independence project precisely when it is needed most.

Nutritional self-sufficiency shielded Russia from severe food disruptions during the early stages of the war, but as the fighting could drag on for months and possibly years, the system will come under increasing strain. The benefits of import substitution are most pronounced in the short term; its drawbacks will take longer to manifest. The future of Putin’s nutritional self-sufficiency project will ultimately depend on the ability of Russian food producers to insulate themselves from global supply-chain disruptions and to overcome the disappearance of traditional trading partners. It will also depend on whether the regime can back up its rhetoric with massive financial support for the agroindustrial complex and consumer food subsidies that would keep staple foods even minimally affordable. Russia also needs the international food giants to continue their operations in the country so that it can access their expertise, global trade networks, and capabilities. Grain is still the key to Russia’s domestic food production, and the country has it aplenty. Grain is also an easily stored product. So even if the system eventually unravels, it might take years for serious food shortages to arise.

Investment in food production and Russia’s leading position in the global grain trade might also help Putin not only internally, but also externally. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, and Yemen purchase at least half their wheat from Russia and Ukraine.22 Those importers might have to provide Russia with important political support during its growing confrontation with the West or risk the reduction or even cancelation of their grain-import contracts. After all, if Russia can stop natural-gas supplies to Poland, it can suspend grain deliveries to Turkey, a NATO member state, or to key regional powers such as Egypt or Pakistan.

Indeed, on 1 April 2022, Medvedev, now deputy chairman of the Security Council, warned on his Telegram channel that food sales are a powerful weapon and stated that Russia should supply food only to “friendly countries” and deny it to the unfriendly ones. Weeks later, an article published by the state-owned RIA Novosti echoed the warning: Russia’s food weapon, it said, is more potent than its missiles, for Russia controls almost a quarter of the global wheat market and nearly half of the sunflower-oil market. After all, “one can survive without [mobile] phones and the internet, but not without bread, even if it is baked from totalitarian Russian wheat.”23

These threats to global food security ought to be taken seriously in the context of a protracted war. Not only is Russia weaponizing its own food exports, but it is also stealing massive amounts of Ukraine’s grain and agricultural machinery and preventing the export of Ukrainian grain by blockading Ukraine’s ports—triggering, very likely deliberately, a global food crisis. The UN World Food Programme has warned that already vulnerable Middle Eastern and African countries being denied Ukrainian grain could suffer widespread hunger. At a May G7 meeting, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock accused Russia of deliberately turning its war on Ukraine into a global “grain war” and cynically using food as “a deliberately chosen instrument in a hybrid war that is being waged right now.” Russia’s goal, Baerbock said, is to manufacture a global humanitarian crisis that will pressure the international community to give in to the Kremlin’s demands. Putin, meanwhile, predictably blamed the potential famine on Western elites who, he said, “are ready to sacrifice the rest of the world to maintain their global dominance.”24

In this global “grain war,” Putin has powerful weapons both as a food provider to the Russian population and as a food denier to the nutritionally vulnerable global South. Russia’s ability to cause a major hunger crisis in the global South is as crucial for Russia’s confrontation with the West as is Russia’s performance on the battlefield in Ukraine.

From Farm to “Stable”

To understand Putinism, scholars and analysts typically focus on key features of its regime ideology such as statism, conservatism, and anti-Westernism or on factors such as political institutions, corruption, and Russia’s dependence on oil and gas exports. But there is more to the story. Putin views food security as a key national-security and regime-survival issue, and he set out to achieve food independence almost from the moment he rose to power in 2000: By 2008, Russia was no longer dependent on grain imports; in 2010, achieving independence from food imports became official doctrine; and by 2018, the country had become a dominant player in the world grain market.

The covid pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine are testing the success of Putin’s food-independence project. The results so far have been mixed. These monumental crises—a pandemic, large-scale war, and open confrontation with the West—have not produced the empty shelves, breadlines, and chronic food shortages seen in the Soviet era, thus vindicating the strategy. Russia’s leading role in grain export also allows it to control the food pantries in numerous developing countries and thus to threaten a global famine to achieve geopolitical goals.

Yet due to the food system’s inherent weaknesses—such as limited competition, inefficiency, and heavy state intervention—the regime cannot insulate Russians from food-price increases. As long as the Kremlin can ensure plentiful domestic food supplies and keep the most basic food staples, especially bread, minimally affordable, thanks either to price controls or subsidies, Putin need not fear a repeat of the 1917 food riots or the collapse of popular support seen in the late 1980s. Yet if the drive toward complete autarky continues long enough to either impede domestic production or make staple foods unaffordable, the regime will be in severe danger.

Writing about earlier empires, Scott Nelson asserted that they “survive only as long as they control the sources of food needed to feed soldiers and citizens.”25 Putin’s Russia is no different. In 2014, Vyacheslav Volodin, one of Putin’s senior officials, famously stated, “No Putin, no Russia.” But, we would argue, “no food, no Putin.”


1. James C. Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017); Edward Newman, “Hungry, or Hungry for Change? Food Riots and Political Conflict, 2005–2015,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 43 (April 2020): 300–24.

2. Robert H. Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Henry Thomson, Food and Power: Regime Type, Agricultural Policy, and Political Stability (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

3. Jeremy Wallace, Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

4. Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 108.

5. Aleksei Gordeev, Russia’s Food Supply: Problems of Theory and Practice (in Russian) (Moscow: Kolos, 1999).

6. Russian Federation: Agriculture Support Policies and Performance (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2020), 80.

7. “Food Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation (in Russian),” 2010,

8. Susanne Wengle, “The Domestic Effects of the Russian Food Embargo,” Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization 24 (Summer 2016): 281–89; Masha Hedberg, “The Target Strikes Back: Explaining Countersanctions and Russia’s Strategy of Differentiated Retaliation,” Post-Soviet Affairs 34, no. 1 (2018): 35–54.

9. Fond Obshestvennoe Mnenie, “Dinamika otnoshenii k sanktsiiam i kontsaktsiiam” [Dynamics of attitudes towards sanctions and countersanctions], 12 April 2016, This is a proregime polling agency, which might affect the results.

10. “Vladimir Putin Meets with Members of the Valdai Discussion Club: Transcript of the Plenary Session of the 18th Annual Meeting,” 22 October 2021,

11. Finexpertiza, “Dorogoi minimum” [An expensive minimum], 22 April 2021,

12. Levada Center, “Problemy obschestva” [Problems of society], 9 March 2021,

13. Office of the President of Russia, “Ezhegodnaia press-konferentssia Vladimira Putina” [Annual press conference of Vladimir Putin], 17 December 2020,

14. Evgeny Safronov and Elene Vinogradova, “Gendirektor ‘Rusagro’ oproverg ot’ezd za granitsu sovladel’tsa kompanii Vadima Moshkovicha posle spora s Putinym” [Director general of ‘Rusagro’ denied the move abroad of company’s co-owner Vadim Moshkovich after an argument with Putin], Otkrytye Media, 19 May 2021,

15. Government of the Russian Federation, “Ezhegodnyi otcher pravitel’stva v Gosudarstvennoi Dume” [Government’s annual report to the State Duma], 12 May 2021,; Office of the President of Russia, “Zasedanie Vysshego Evraziiskogo ekonomicheskogo soveta” [Meeting of the Supreme Eurasian economic council], 21 May 2021,

16. Polina Ivanova, “Protesting No More,” Reuters, 30 July 2021,

17. “Russia Sanctions Tracker,” Ashurst, accessed 10 May 2022,; Yale School of Management, “Almost 1,000 Companies Have Curtailed Operations in Russia—But Some Remain,” 10 May 2022,

18. Asim Anand, “The Big 4 of Agriculture Unlikely to Exit Russia Despite Mounting Pressure,” 19 April 2022,

19. Inna Degotkova and Ekaterina Vinogradova, “Real’nye dokhody vozobnovili snizhenie” [Real incomes resumed decline],, 27 April 2022,; “Kremlin Warns Against Panic Buying as Food Prices Rise Fast,” Moscow Times, 18 March 2022,

20. Inna Degotkova, “Luk s kapustoi zaniali mesto pomidorov s sakharom” [Onion and cabbage took the place of tomatoes and sugar],, 30 March 2022,

21. Office of the President of Russia, “Meeting on Developing Agriculture and Fisheries,” 5 April 2022,

22. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The Importance of Ukraine and the Russian Federation for Global Agricultural Markets and the Risks Associated with the Current Conflict,” 25 March 2022,

23. Dmitry Medvedev, “Nasha eda protiv ikh sanktsii” [Our food against their sanctions], 1 April, 2022,; Sergei Savchuk, “Protiv Zapada u Rossii est’ oruzhie namnogo strashnee raket” [Against the West Russia has a weapon much more fearsome than missiles], RIA Novosti, 22 April 2022,

24. World Food Programme, “War in Ukraine: WFP Calls for Ports to Reopen as World Faces Deepening Hunger Crisis,” 6 May 2022,; “G7: Russia Extending Ukraine Military War to ‘Grain War,’ Says German FM Baerbock,” Euronews, 14 May 2022,; “Putin: West’s Russia Sanctions Triggering Global Economic Crisis,” Al Jazeera, 12 May 2022,

25. Scott Reynolds Nelson, Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2022), 39.


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