Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Who Will Food Aid Be Feeding?

Russia has had a bad harvest this year and faces a grim winter, and there are scattered reports - but as yet nothing definitive - that some rural areas may suffer food shortages.

If such regions can be identified speedily, and food from Europe or America can be delivered to them in a timely and accessible way, then the U.S. and European food deals discussed in Moscow in recent days will be judged a success.

Particularly admirable are plans to steer some of the food to Russia's horribly underfed prison populations.

Unfortunately, however, these aid deals have been poorly thought out and will be even more poorly executed. They are being driven less to meet the needs of a concrete hungry population than to serve the mutual interests of Russian, U.S. and European lobbies.

The U.S. side, for example, has offered free grain and other foodstuffs. But they are paying only to deliver it to Russia's borders, when the real challenge will be figuring out where it needs to go and how to come up with the money to get it there.

That challenge will be taken up by a few private companies that have already been selected - without any competitive bidding process. That already smacks of cronyism, and sets the tone for how this distribution will work.

Under U.S. law, U.S. aid is not supposed to be doled out to private structures without competitive bidding. But the Department of Agriculture must think of all of those American farmers, their silos packed with wheat, and so niceties have been brushed aside and the deal has gone forward.

Chief among the companies selected to hand out the grain is Roskhleboprodukt, which in 1992 oversaw a U.S. humanitarian aid distribution that has been panned as riddled with graft. The top Russian official leading these talks is Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Kulik, a man whose name has figured in past corruption scandals. As authoritative a politician as Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky has publicly mentioned Kulik in connection with government corruption.

Yavlinsky's charges remain unsubstantiated. But they are also out there, unanswered - the government is purportedly checking into Kulik's past - even as U.S. officials are slapping Kulik on the back and toasting success, and detailing a mere two Americans to monitor the distribution.

The United States could have brought in an organization with a proven track record, such as a United Nations group or the Red Cross. Instead, a murky deal has been rushed through that raises all sorts of questions, but leaves insiders like Kulik and Roskhleboprodukt smiling.