Where I live, inflation is in double figures and is going to rise higher. People are doing all they can for Ukrainian refugees and Russian and Ukrainian can be frequently heard in the streets. Food and fuel prices are rising here and in a poor country this is not merely an inconvenience. It is a calamity and the reasons can be laid squarely at Moscow’s door. Yet the chill wind of famine is currently felt most keenly in the vast agricultural territories of Ukraine itself. A few weeks ago, a journalist spoke with a Ukrainian peasant – they still call the agricultural workers that in a place that is virtually a breadbasket for the rest of the world. He said: “In the old days, we had horses and cows and pigs and chickens. Now we are dying of hunger. In the old days, we fed the world. Now they have taken all we had away from us and we have nothing. In the old days, I would have bade you welcome, and given you as my guest chickens and eggs and milk and fine, white bread. Now we have no bread in the house.”
Soldiers have once more been sent by Moscow to seize Ukrainian grain. Once more, farmers are killed and their barns and stores looted. And once more, the Ukrainian people are being made to pay.
Ukraine is a country geographically cursed by sheer bad luck. It sits cheek by jowl with Russia, which brought it the USSR, Josef Stalin, the gulags and an unsuccessful Cold War. Now, a new and perhaps even more devilish incarnation of the Russian bear is at its gates.
Less well known is that Ukraine is a victim of its own fecundity. The country is coated in so-called “black soil” (Chernozem), which contains humus of such good quality that make it the most fertile soil in the world. In it grows barley, wheat, corn, soy, rape seed and sunflowers. Only about 2% of the world’s soil is black soil and about 25% of that is found in Ukraine. The country has over 42 million hectares of agricultural land of which roughly 32 million is cultivated every year — equivalent to roughly one-third of the arable land in the entire European Union.
Since the Russians invaded on 24 February, they have destroyed civilian districts with indiscriminate, old-fashioned weaponry, trashed public infrastructure, slaughtered women and children and tortured and executed prisoners. They have also stolen farm equipment, shelled food storage sites and stolen thousands of tonnes of grain. It’s systemic and most obvious in the country’s south where farmers have reported multiple, egregious thefts. Furthermore, Ukraine cannot export the grain it has. Millions of tonnes are stuck and a vast stockpile is simply rotting where it lies. The Russians have taken Mariupol and, with it, Ukraine’s access to the Azov Sea so many of the usual channels have been deliberately and shamefully blocked. Now they are creeping with bullish indifference to both their own and their enemies’ losses towards Mykolaiv in order to seize Odessa. Since Ukraine cannot get its grain out, this creates a domino effect, rippling around the world. Trusted sources speak of an “apocalyptic rise” in food prices in big importers like the UK. But we will not suffer alone. Around 40% of Egyptian milling grain – the grain that is used for bread – comes from Ukraine. If this fails to materialise there will be almost certainly be widespread hunger if not a near-famine. The effect on the country, as well as on the region’s political stability, will almost certainly be catastrophic. Many African nations, their economies hanging by a thread, may suffer the same fate.
The Russian army still fights like the Red Army did during the Second World War. Its slab-faced tactics remain equally stupid, its brutality and stolid, Napoleonic indifference similarly unchecked. It murders Ukrainian children. It destroys Ukrainian artefacts. It tries to erase all traces of the country’s national identity. No surprise, then, that it has merely succeeded in galvanising it.
It is not just the Ukrainians who are enraged. Much of the rest of the world wants to see the army responsible and most particularly its commander in chief receive a bloody nose of such ferocity that they will think twice before trying their luck elsewhere. Dictators have a habit of not bowing out gracefully. They have to be removed by force. This one will eventually join the Idi Amins, the Ceaucescus and the Saddam Husseins, the Qaddafis and all the others. But the cost may be punishingly high.
We hope indeed that as this terrible conflict drags on, Longfellow’s grim poetry of retribution will come true:
“Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all. The mills of God grind slowly but they grind exceeding small.”