Russia is 'weaponizing' food, Joly tells Commonwealth partners as meeting ends without formal rebuke of Moscow

Commonwealth leaders ended their first meeting in four years on Saturday by noting the United Nations resolution that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine — but the organization issued no rebuke of its own.

Support for Ukraine was 'much discussed' at meetings, Trudeau says

Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly, right, appears next to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they attend the Commonwealth leaders' summit in Kigali, Rwanda, on Friday. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Commonwealth leaders ended their first meeting in four years on Saturday by noting the United Nations resolution that condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine — but the organization issued no rebuke of its own.

Outside of the conference room, it was left to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — and more pointedly, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly — to lay the blame for the impending food security crisis at the feet of Moscow.

Both Britain and Canada spent two days at the Commonwealth meeting trying to convince members on the fence to blame Russia for soaring word-wide food and fuel prices.

It was, at times, a struggle to get mention of support for Ukraine in the final communiqué. In the end it was there, but with no direct condemnation of Russia, which has supporters among the 54-nation body.

"Yes, we recognize the challenges — politically — that some member-states face," Trudeau said, speaking to reporters as the meeting ended.

Trudeau said he made it his mission to argue Ukraine's case to the room and in meetings with individual leaders. During a United Nations General Assembly vote in March, 10 Commonwealth countries abstained from voting, while one did not vote.

"I can assure you that the topic of Ukraine was much discussed. And in our consensus communiqué around which we are united there is strong language of support for Ukraine," he said.

Journalists walk inside a destroyed warehouse for storing food, after an attack by Russia 12 days prior in Brovary, on the outskirts of Kyiv on March 29. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

What the final communiqué said was the Commonwealth took "note" of the UN resolution condemning Russia.

The stern language, however, came outside of the conference room from Joly.

"What is clear to us is that Russia is weaponizing food, and putting a toll on many countries around the world, and putting 50 million lives at risk," she told reporters late Friday, while giving a recap of the first day of the Commonwealth meeting in Kigali, Rwanda.

Black Sea ports blocked

Ukraine is the world's fourth-largest grain exporter and reportedly has more 30 million tonnes of grain in storage, waiting for export. Farmers are said to be building temporary silos and are worried because the summer harvest is only weeks away.

The country's Black Sea ports of Odesa, Pivdennyi, and Mykolaiv and Chornomorsk serve as major terminals — shipping about 4.5 million tonnes of grain per month, but a Russian naval blockade is preventing movement.

A recent report from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) concluded that Russia is taking advantage of transportation bottlenecks to attack Ukraine's food storage facilities.

Russian forces have attacked grain silos across the country and stolen an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes of grain from occupied regions, according to Ukraine's Defence Ministry.

The CSIS report, posted online on June 15, noted "Russia destroyed one of Europe's largest food storage facilities in Brovary, roughly 19 kilometres northeast of Ukraine's capital of Kyiv."

The subject of the Russian blockade of Ukraine grain exports will also be at the centre of the G7 leaders meeting, beginning Sunday in Germany.

Anti-tank obstacles on a wheat field at a farm in southern Ukraine's Mykolaiv region, on June 11, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week delivered a scathing critique of the crisis, blaming the U.S. and not the Russian military actions in Ukraine for endangering food security, and rising inflation and fuel prices.

He reinforced the message in a phone call last week with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was one of the Commonwealth leaders to skip this week's meeting.

Africa is heavily reliant on Ukrainian and — to a lesser extent — Russian grain.

For those leaders who did show up in Rwanda, Joly said Canada has been clear in assigning blame for the crisis. 

Sanctions not to blame, Joly says

"This is not the fault of the Western sanctions," she said. "This is really Putin's war of choice that is affecting food security around the world."

Ten members of the Commonwealth abstained from condemning Moscow's invasion of Ukraine in a United Nations resolution last spring.

Joly said she believes Canada made "headway" at the conference in convincing some of those nations to stand more firmly with Ukraine, but she wasn't specific.

In a policy session held before the meeting of Commonwealth leaders, there was a call for African countries to be more self-sufficient in food supplies to offset imports.

Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), told the conference said that the agriculture sector in developing countries of the Commonwealth is "heavily underinvested." She called for adequate funding to boost "the sector productivity, strengthen its resilience and deal with climate change, as well as create jobs, according to local media reports.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.