LOS ANGELES, California — “They had put up a black flag at one end of the village and another one at the other end, which indicated that absolutely no one had survived, not even a dog or a cat.” This was the reality that Ukrainians faced during the great famine of the early 20th century and one that they could soon face again. Since the Russian invasion in February 2022, citizens once again face a hunger crisis in Ukraine.
Ukraine has had a long history of man-made hunger. In 1929, Joseph Stalin ordered the collectivization of farming as part of furthering his communist agenda, meaning that small farms would be combined to make larger, supposedly more productive, state-run collectives. Many Ukrainian farmers resisted this notion. Stalin branded these farmers as enemies of the people and directed authorities to drive them off their farms by brute force, with some facing imprisonment.
The resulting labor shortage, among other reasons, resulted in Ukraine’s grain harvest falling far below the quota set by the Soviet regime. As punishment, Stalin’s people collected every last grain, leaving Ukrainians with nothing to eat. By 1932, Ukraine faced a famine, which is known today as Holodomor, or “death by hunger.”
About 4 million Ukrainians, approximately 13% of the population, died from starvation between 1932 and 1933. In some villages, 10 to 20 families succumbed to hunger daily. To make matters worse, Ukrainians had nowhere to go as Stalin closed the borders in an “attempt to eradicate” the Ukrainian population.
An End to the Famine
After the famine came to a peak in the summer of 1933, the Soviets eased repression by allowing aid to Ukraine and reducing grain quotas. Finally, in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became independent.
Up to his death, Stalin denied that a famine ever took place under the Soviet Union, let alone as a means of genocide. Today, the Russian Federation has replaced the former Soviet Union under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Although Putin recognizes that Holodomor took place, like Stalin, he denies that it was a man-made famine to eradicate Ukrainians. However, a minimum of 17 countries, including the United States, acknowledge Holodomor as genocide under Stalin’s regime.
Unfortunately, today, the world sees history repeating itself. Not only is Ukraine at risk of losing its independence again but another leader is weaponizing hunger.
The Hunger Crisis in Ukraine Today
In February 2022, Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Russia has captured multiple cities while destroying fertile farmland and agricultural equipment, interrupting vital supply routes and taking crucial ports under its control.
Before the war broke out, Ukraine stood as one of the main suppliers of wheat to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Not only has Russia occupied vital supply routes and ports to prevent grain exports from leaving the country but it has also seized existing food stocks.
Thus, the little wheat that Ukrainian farmers produce goes toward feeding their people. Unfortunately, this has not sufficed, as some cities like Mariupol already ran out of food in March 2022.
Once again, a leader is starving the Ukrainians “into submission” for resisting the invasion of their homeland.
Why it Matters
With Ukraine standing as “the breadbasket of Europe,” the massive decline in wheat exports could cause food insecurity across Europe and beyond. Roman Slaston, the general director of the Ukrainian Agribusiness Club, said in April 2022 that, currently, only 15% of exports make it out of Ukraine.
Resultantly, global food prices have skyrocketed and 276 million people, more than twice the number from 2019, now face food insecurity across the world. The soaring food prices disproportionately affect developing countries that heavily rely on cheap wheat from Ukraine.
Fortunately, many countries and organizations are stepping in to provide humanitarian aid. In April 2022, the European Union vowed to back Poland’s “efforts to supply 50,000 tons of diesel per week to Ukrainian farmers.” In addition, the World Food Programme (WFP) began delivering food aid to the Ukrainian people at the start of the hunger crisis in Ukraine and continues to do so.
However, this crisis goes way beyond the borders of Ukraine. Although some grain exports have managed to leave Ukraine via ground, this will never meet the same quotas as the sea routes. Thus, a more radical approach is necessary to put an end to this crisis.
Switzerland, a country that has stayed neutral for decades, has unique leverage. Russia trades about 80% of its raw materials through four major Swiss cities. However, Switzerland is taking a “hesitant approach” in imposing sanctions on Russia. Tightening sanctions might pose pressure on Putin to cease its repression of Ukraine.
If, however, Switzerland chooses to remain passive or Putin does not break under the pressure of a stagnant economy, the only remaining answer is money. In a March 2022 interview with NPR, Joseph Glauber, senior research fellow of the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Arif Husain, chief economist at the World Food Programme, highlighted that even without Ukraine’s exports, there is enough food in the world, only at an increased price. Thus, “if governments and other donors can fill the gap between what people are able to pay and the new, higher price of food, people will not go hungry.”
Unfortunately, the world does not have an ideal record of generosity — global humanitarian organizations still struggle to secure sufficient donations from countries to meet their humanitarian goals. In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “it is on us to prevent this history from repeating itself.”
– Lena Maassen