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At UN, EU’s Michel blames Russia for food crisis

NEW YORK — In a speech Monday at the United Nations Security Council, European Council President Charles Michel pushed back hard against Russian claims that Western sanctions are causing a global food crisis.

Michel’s charges of lying by the Kremlin infuriated the Russian ambassador, who stormed out of the meeting as Michel jabbed that perhaps the diplomat didn’t want to hear the truth.

“The EU has no sanctions on the agricultural sector — zero,” Michel said in a speech delivered in person at U.N. headquarters in New York. “And even our sanctions on the Russian transport sector do not go beyond our EU borders,” he continued. “They do not prevent Russian-flagged vessels from carrying grain, food or fertilizers to developing countries.” 

Michel’s remarks, at a Security Council meeting focused primarily on sexual violence and other alleged war atrocities by Russian forces in Ukraine, underscored mounting alarm in Brussels about the false Russian narrative on the food crisis that appears to be gaining traction among some leaders, including Senegalese President Macky Sall, the 2022 chairperson of the African Union, who visited Russia on Friday.

Western officials have been urging the swift opening of ports and shipping corridors in the Black Sea to help Ukraine, one of the world’s major agricultural producers, to move millions of tons of grain that are stuck because of the war. While Ukraine has mined some coastal waters to protect itself from Russian warships, Russia has captured some important port cities like Mariupol and Kherson. Ukrainian and Western officials have also accused Russia of stealing grain. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and other officials have tried to blame the West’s punishing sanctions for exacerbating the food crisis — charges that Michel flatly rejected in his speech in New York. Instead, he put the blame squarely on Moscow. 

Michel turned toward and directly addressed Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, as he accused Moscow of lying about the impact of punishing sanctions levied by the EU and its allies in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Mr. Ambassador of the Russian Federation, let’s be honest: the Kremlin is using food supplies as a stealth missile against developing countries,” Michel said. “The dramatic consequences of Russia’s war are spilling over across the globe, and this is driving up food prices, pushing people into poverty, and destabilizing entire regions.

“And Russia is solely responsible for this food crisis — Russia alone, despite the Kremlin’s campaign of lies and disinformation,” Michel continued. “I’ve seen it with my own eyes, a few weeks ago in Odesa, millions of tons of grain and wheat stuck in containers and ships because of Russian warships in the Black Sea and because of Russia’s attack on transport infrastructure.”

The Russian ambassador, evidently furious over Michel’s remarks, walked out of the meeting, prompting the European Council president to snipe: “You may walk out … maybe it’s easier not to listen to the truth.”

Nebenzia, who spoke during the meeting before Michel, accused Ukrainian and Western officials and diplomats of falsely accusing Russian forces of atrocities. He called the Western allegations “mendacious and unfounded” and he used his speech to repeat Russia’s allegations that Nazis had overrun Ukraine, also alleging that it was the Ukrainian troops who were committing rapes and other atrocities. 

Nebenzia leveled other incendiary accusations of trafficking and exploitation of Ukrainian women by Western countries.

Ukraine’s U.N. ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, said “the Russian army continues to apply the most barbaric and inhumane methods of warfare” and he predicted that public comments by Nebenzia and other Russian diplomats could one day be used against them in prosecutions for serving as accomplices to war atrocities.

“Everything said by the accomplices of crimes can and will be used against them in court,” Kyslytsya said. “Of course, they have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before they speak here for their own sake, and maybe they already do.”

Michel in his speech spoke of visiting the Ukrainian city of Borodyanka, where he heard accounts of war crimes by Russian forces. “These crimes must be punished,” Michel said. Speaking specifically of sexual violence, he added: “Shameful acts, in a shameful war. These must be exposed to the light of day and prosecuted without impunity.” 

In addition to his speech to the Security Council, Michel met on Monday with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who has been trying to negotiate a plan to open shipping corridors and resume exports of Ukrainian grain to needy countries around the world, especially in North Africa and the Middle East.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.

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