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They say history does not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.
It appears Russia intends to win its brutal offensive against Ukraine by any means necessary—even if those means condemn millions to hunger and starvation.
Last month, Moscow pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal, which allowed Ukraine to continue exporting its grain to the rest of the world through select ports in the Black Sea. Shortly after, Russian forces launched a missile strike against those same ports, targeting grain terminals and destroying more than 60,000 tons of grain. It is a shameful assault that bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi’s Hunger Plan. Just as Hitler did before when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, it seems Putin intends to seize Ukrainian grain for Russia and deliberately leave millions of Ukrainians in occupied territory to starve to death.
If there is anything that constitutes a war crime, this is it. Yet, sadly, it is an atrocity that has received little intensive world outcry, and even less attention from media outlets.
Putin has responded to what little outcry there has been with token gestures to African countries. At the Russian-African summit in St. Petersburg, a representative from the African Union criticized Russia’s move, saying that pulling out of the deal would worsen the food security emergency in the Horn of Africa. Putin claimed that only three percent of the grain shipped under the Black Sea deal went to low- to middle-income countries (a number that the UN says is 57 percent) and promised Russia would give 25,000 to 50,000 tons of free grain to six African countries. The reaction from the summit was mixed. At least one country, Zimbabwe, has responded with a resounding “Thanks, but no thanks.”
All of this is taking place mere months after Russian forces destroyed Ukraine’s Kakhovka dam, causing devastating floods across entire regions in southern Ukraine, including at least 24,000 acres of farmland. What once seemed like a freak disaster with no clear cause is now revealing itself to be a premeditated, deliberate effort to gain headway in the invasion by intentionally destroying the world’s already fragile food supply. Worse, Russian forces don’t seem to care that they are dragging down the rest of the world with them.
Southern Ukraine has some of the most fertile soils in the world. Before Russia’s invasion, the country harvested around four million tons of grain and oilseeds annually. Kherson, one of the regions affected by the flooding, produced as much as 12 percent of the country’s total vegetables, despite only making up two percent of the country’s agricultural land.
Now, one of the world’s vital breadbaskets could be lost for good. Hundreds if not thousands of farmers have been impacted by lost production and damage to critical infrastructure. The runoff from the floodwaters could destroy the deep and rich topsoil that make this region’s land so fertile, which will impact productivity for generations to come. Many experts speculate that this could lead to desertification of thousands of hectares of farmland. The impact on the greater agricultural system is incalculable.
This was all before Russia slammed the door on a diplomatic solution to a global hunger crisis, instead choosing to hold the 2.4 billion people facing food insecurity around the world hostage.
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Putin’s token promises of free grain are rather rich under these circumstances. Currently, Russia contributes less to the World Food Programme than low- to middle-income countries such as Honduras, Guinea-Bissau, and South Sudan.
The world’s food system is already under threat due to climate change, population growth, and increasing vulnerability to diseases, pests, and invasive species, among others. It is far too soon to judge how much of a setback all this will pose for climate and humanitarian goals, but if immediate action is not taken to mitigate the damage, this will be a make-or-break point for the world’s food system. Russia’s brazen acts of destruction and borderline genocide could quite easily lead to widespread famine across the globe.
This is a tragedy for the entire international community, just as it is for the people of Ukraine. It will take decades for Ukrainian land and industry to recover, and in the meantime, the global food supply with face substantial, potentially catastrophic strain. This should alarm leaders of every country. The scope of this blatant threat demands the rallying of everyone involved, for the people of Ukraine and for all generations to come. All this shows why the world should never allow food to be used as a weapon.
Dan Glickman is a former US Agriculture Secretary and member of Congress from Kansas. He serves as a distinguished fellow for the Center on Global Food and Agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and as a board member for the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.
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