Europe's week: Hope in the streets of Kyiv; the EU fears a global food crisis

Wheat Copyright Sandra J. Milburn/AP
Copyright Sandra J. Milburn/AP
By Stefan Grobe
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Life, or something like it, has returned to the streets of the Ukrainian capital. But worries are mounting overseas about food shortages in the short and long term as a result of Russia's war


The war in Ukraine entered its third month this week. The Russian offensive stalled almost from the get-go, making many Western experts wonder about what miscalculations the Kremlin's high command might have made: strategic, tactical, logistical, or all of the above.

Nonetheless, Moscow is prepared for the war to drag on. Sergei Shoigu, the Russian Defence Minister, has recently said: “Despite the heavy assistance to the regime in Kyiv from the West and the sanctions pressure, we will go ahead with the special military operation until all goals are achieved."

Of late the actual fighting has mostly been confined to the east of the country. Since the Russians withdrew from Kyiv and the surrounding area, life has seemingly returned to the streets of the capital.

This week residents were seen out walking and enjoying the good weather. Businesses were open and institutions working.  One of those was the central post office, where Ukrainians stood in long queues ready to buy new stamps.

Why the enthusiasm? Recently five million special wartime postage stamps and postcards went on sale in Ukraine commemorating the heroism and resistance of its fighters. In homage to both a famous incident on Snake Island early on in the conflict, and the downing of the flagship Moskva in mid-April, they depict a Ukrainian soldier giving a middle finger to a Russian warship.

Fears of a food security crisis

One of the 'unintended' consequences of the Russian invasion might actually be intended, according to the European Commission. Brussels is accusing Moscow of weaponising not only energy exports, but also food supplies. The European Union is rightly afraid of the consequences a food security crisis might have for middle- and low-income countries.

Speaking in Davos, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said Russia is now withholding its own food exports as a form of blackmail, keeping back supplies to increase global prices or seeking to trade wheat in exchange for political support.

In Ukraine, von der Leyen accused Moscow of deliberate sabotage. "In Russian-occupied Ukraine," she said, "the Kremlin's army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery. Russia's artillery is bombarding grain warehouses in Ukraine deliberately and Russia's warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds. The consequences of these shameful acts are there for everyone to see."

The result is that countries that depend on Ukraine for up to 50 per cent of their grain supplies, many in Africa and the Middle East, are immediately seeing their food security put in jeopardy.

Maximo Torero, chief economist at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), says the crisis is likely to deepen as time goes on. "The major concern for us is for next year. And that is linked to the fact that the Russian Federation is the first exporter of fertilisers in the world. That could shut down big yields [elsewhere] in the world."

The European Commission has stated several times that war-induced food shortages are not of concern for Europe, at least in the short term. But poorer countries already affected by the COVID-19 crisis may well suffer the consequences. 

To mitigate this, the FAO is proposing a 'Food for Financing' facility to help those affected by covering part of their increased imports bill. This, Torero says, "would help countries to cope for a period of time, and to avoid social unrest".

But the FAO also wants to find a solution for fertiliser scarcity. "The problem is an issue of supply," Torero explains. "Because of fewer exports from Russia, we are looking into how we can improve the efficiency in which we use fertilisers. So, new soil maps so that we can reduce the wastage, and also, if technically possible, delaying strong application at the beginning - when you do the planting - to later periods."

Next week EU leaders will attend an extraordinary European Council summit at which food security will be on the agenda, as well as sanctions on Russia, and the wider situation of the war in Ukraine.

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