Zelensky speaks heart to heart to Indonesians. Part I: Global food crises and the face of famine.

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President Vloymyr Zelensky of Ukraine (2022) Photo credit: President of Ukraine from Україна, PDM-owner, via Wikimedia Commons.

IO – “My country Ukraine is one of the biggest and most reliable food stuff exporters in the world. We are exporting tens of millions of tons of grains and grain products a year. Ukraine stands amongst the world’s top wheat, vegetable oil and corn exporters.

Meanwhile, for the fourth month Ukrainian exports have been blockaded because of the full scale war unleashed by Russia against our state. Russia has cut access to our ports on the Black Sea and occupied parts of the Azov Sea shoreline. Because of this military blockade, most of Ukrainian traditional trade routes have been blocked. At the moment there are 22 million tons of grain sitting in silos in Ukraine. We cannot send them to the international markets exactly at this time they are so needed. It is already palpable that the price of grains and foodstuffs will see catastrophic spikes. Some countries which are traditional exporters of foodstuffs have already had to cut the export of certain agricultural products to prevent domestic prices from spiking and to protect domestic consumption. According to UN estimates some 40 to 50 million people may additionally face the prospect of hunger this year – and I believe this is quite a conservative estimate.”

President Zelensky was speaking directly from the heart to the people of Indonesia at a virtual global town hall meeting held by the Indonesian Foreign Policy Community or FPCI, which is the largest foreign policy community in the world. Former Deputy Foreign Minister and Indonesian Ambassador to the United States, Dino Patti Jalal heads the FPCI and arranged for President Zelensky to address Indonesia directly through a virtual town hall meeting. The event was also covered by Indonesian Metro TV and several other stations.

It is the first time that President Zelensky has directly addressed the people of an Asian nation. He usually speaks to world leaders and to national parliaments although he also directly addressed the Russian people after President Putin ordered Russian troops to invade Ukraine. Indonesia is the third most populous democracy in the world, it takes over leadership of ASEAN states next year and most significantly, it currently holds the chairmanship of the G20 – Indonesia will be hosting the G20 summit this year. There have been suggestions that Indonesia would also like to play a mediating role in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Western countries have tried to pressure Indonesia to exclude Russia from the summit but Indonesia has refused, insisting on inviting all G20 members to attend and focus on global economic recovery after the pandemic and climate change.  Indonesia has however, also invited Ukraine which is not a G20 member and President Zelensky announced in his speech to Indonesia that Ukraine accepted Indonesia’s invitation with honour and delight. He said that he personally wished to attend but that during a time of war he needed to be with his people. Should there be peace in Ukraine at the time of the G20 summit he would be delighted to come. Otherwise, the situation permitting he hoped to participate via zoom.

Can Indonesia play a mediating role in the war? Former Indonesian foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa prefers to refer to such a role as facilitating rather than mediating. “It would of course, depend on the comfort and acceptance level Russia and Ukraine felt towards Indonesia acting as a facilitator and they would have to be the ones calling for it. However, there is a desperate need in the current conflict for a third view because at the moment no party can reach out without being seen as weak and appeasing. Indonesia’s foreign policy principle has always been independent and active. So, Indonesia could play a role in reaching out and proposing new ideas – however as said, the two parties concerned would have to accept and be comfortable with Indonesia in that role.”

In his address to Indonesia, President Zelensky stressed that the world is on the brink of several crises of magnitude and he took the decision to speak directly to the people of Indonesia in the hope that by doing so it would bring the two nations closer together in an understanding of how to prevent these crises from occurring. He began by speaking about the urgency of the coming global food crisis.

Ukrainian produces 42% of the world’s sunflower oil. Photo credit: Анатолий Зубанюк, CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons. org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

Food shipments from Ukraine are crucial to millions of people all over the world who depend on them for Ukraine produces 42 percent of the world’s sunflower oil and ten percent of its wheat and barley. These are vital for both African as well as Middle Eastern countries which could face food shortages if the problem is not dealt with soon. Countries such as Egypt and Lebanon have seen increases in food prices of up to 50 percent. Indonesia itself has experienced worrying rises in the cost of food, to the extent that President Joko Widodo forbade the export of cooking oil.

The Director of the World Food Program (WFP), David Beasley says that there is no question that food is being used as a weapon of war in many different ways by President Putin. He reiterated this at a UN Security Council meeting on May 19th 2022, declaring that “Failure to open the ports in the Odessa region is a declaration of war on global food security and will result in famines, destabilization and mass migration around the world.”

Russia which is the largest exporter of wheat in the world meanwhile, has temporarily stopped its grain exports from the end of March till the end of June. The Russian Foreign Ministry denies that Russia is responsible for global food shortages and blames Western sanctions against Russia instead. However, there are no Western sanctions against grain and humanitarian aid, including food exports from Russia. Furthermore, the United States has agreed to provide letters of comfort to shipping lines and insurance companies transporting Russian grain to reassure them on this. It is not economical to buy from Russia because prices are high and there are administrative hurdles. Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who advises President Putin on security matters has written, “Many countries depend on our supplies for their food security. It turns out that our food is our quiet weapon. Quiet but ominous.”

Ukraine does not really have a navy any longer; just a few small patrol boats to protect the south Ukrainian coastline. It is referred to as a ‘mosquito fleet’ because it is so small. A Ukrainian navy once existed but when Russia seized Crimea it also annexed 75 percent of Ukraine’s navy.

The current Russo-Ukrainian War began with the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on the 24th of May 2022. Russia began its blockade of Ukrainian ports by first shutting the Kerch Strait which connects the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. It then blockaded Ukraine’s most important ports in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov such as Berdyansk, Mariupol, Odessa, Mykolayev, Kherson, Izmail etc. The important Sea of Azov port cities of Berdyansk and Mariupol have since fallen to Russian forces.

2022 Ukrainian postage stamp stating “Russian warship, go…! Glory to Ukraine!”. Photo credit: Українська: Борис ГрохEnglish: Boris Groh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

To the west lies Ukraine’s largest sea port, Odessa with its infamous Snake Island where in the early days of the conflict its meagre Ukrainian defence force famously told the Russian navy to f—off when told to surrender. Russian warships and forces stationed on Snake Island are now enforcing a blockade on Odessa. Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have been fighting to try to retake Snake Island in the hopes of preventing the Russians from setting up surface-to-air missiles there. Russia has about 40 warships, 25,000 mariners and 7 seven submarines. Added to this are hundreds of sea mines along Ukraine’s coast that are highly dangerous for shipping. They were placed there by the Ukrainians to prevent the Russians from invading and by the Russians to help blockade Ukrainian ports.

The chairman of the African Union, Macky Sall has forewarned the EU of “a catastrophic scenario” of food shortages and price rises if Russia continues to blockade Ukrainian ports. He has said that the worst is probably still ahead of us.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky warned of a second crises in his address to Indonesia, “Hunger never comes alone. It also brings with it political chaos and further deterioration of the situation; it ruins social life and creates dangerous and difficult conditions for ordinary people. Already in July, when many countries will see their grain stocks from previous years depleted it will become clear that a catastrophe is looming. You can check your prices at the stores. You will see them increasing which is a harbinger of destitution for those already poor and further misery for the middle class – and this may bring political chaos in certain regions of the world and this is just one aspect of how the war by Russia is affecting the whole world. There are many more.

…Then there is a third aspect: the very nature of the war waged by Russia. Since the very beginning of the war on the 24th of February the Russian army has used 2,389 missiles of different types against Ukraine. An absolute majority of them hit civil infrastructure. Warehouses, food stores and food warehouses, residential buildings and even the railroad.

We are working on measures to try to alleviate the food crises. We try to find new routes. We want to supply the world market with our grains, using the railroads and European ports. Definitely, the scope of our exports will be less than via the Black Sea but even then Russia tries to cut short our attempts; destroying our railway stations, logistical hubs and railroad bridges and granaries.”

Ukraine is the world’s 4th biggest exporter of grains and can feed 400 million people. Photo credit: Liilia Moroz, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The EU is trying to find ways to bring foodstuffs and other exports out of Ukraine via land routes and then to European harbours. It is too expensive to transport them by truck and grains are too heavy to be airlifted. The best means is by rail; however, Ukraine’s Soviet era equipment carries its own problems. In the long term the EU may make the necessary infrastructure investments but that will take time. So that for the time being, the sea route is still the best means of transporting Ukrainian exports.

On the other hand, NATO countries do not want NATO forces involved in direct sea battles with Russia and prefer to try to equip Ukraine with sufficient weapons so as to be able to stand up to Russia on its own. A few days ago, Denmark provided Ukraine with a large quantity of Harpoon anti-ship missiles. These will be used together with Ukrainian domestically produced Neptune missiles to protect Ukraine’s coast especially, the port of Odessa. The United States has also recently provided Ukraine with a large number of self-propelled howitzers that can strike targets from further distances. On Wednesday, Reuters announced that the US will also be providing Ukraine with advanced rocket systems and munitions while Germany will provide it with the IRIS-T air defence system. Nevertheless, the Russian fleet has the strategic advantage as they only need to make the Black Sea too dangerous for shipping Ukrainian exports.

One way suggested out of the crises is convoys of escorted ships carrying food stuffs such as grain. Lithuania has been active in trying to encourage other nations to participate in such a convoy, including ships from countries needing the grain in Africa and the Middle East as well as from countries such as India and China. Ukraine has been working on such an operation to ensure safe trade routes for food exports to be led by the United Nations. Turkey’s cooperation in this is vital as under the Treaty of Montreaux, Turkey controls the Straits of Turkey which are the only maritime connection between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. For Ukraine this is also a matter of the utmost urgency as before the war all its export trade and 90 % of its trade in grains (including wheat and sunflower oil) were shipped through the Black Sea. It is the world’s 4th biggest exporter of grains and can feed 400 million people at a time when world food prices are rising.

However, shortages of grains and other foodstuffs are only a part of the problem. In Kharkiv there is an enormous underground seed bank which stores the genetic code for close to 2,000 crops. This northeastern Ukrainian town has been intensely bombed by Russian forces and although the town is now in Ukrainian hands it is still in danger of Russian bombardments. Why is this important?

Sculptures of the Great Irish potato famine by Rowan Gillespie in Dublin convey an idea what famine means. Photo credit: Bernd Thaller from Graz, Austria, CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Luigi Guarino, director of science of the Crop Trust explains it by saying that right now the biggest threat to global food security is climate change and that the best way to mitigate the effects of climate change is through food diversity. In agricultural hubs around the world average temperatures are rising whereas average rainfall is decreasing. This is encouraging all sorts of new and aggressive pathogens. History teaches us that decreasing biodiversity can have terrible consequences as for example during the Irish famine. At the time nearly 15% of the Irish population (1 million people) died of starvation when a fungus destroyed the entire potato crop between 1845 and 1849. This was because although there are hundreds of varieties of potatoes in Ireland, they only grew one type, the Irish Lumper. Had there been more diversity in the potatoes grown, there might have been varieties resistant to the fungus. Bananas, avocadoes and many other food crops have gone through similar experiences because modern technology has focused on producing one variety and thereby limiting plant diversity.

Through the ages mankind has cultivated about 6,000 plant species. Now we grow only nine species with rice, wheat and corn providing 50% of all calories and potatoes, barley, soya, sugar and palm oil providing another 25% of people’s calorie intake. Wheat is the most consumed grain in the world and the Green Revolution tripled production but it also brought an enormous loss of wheat diversity. Plant diversity is crucial to surviving climate change. This makes the Kharkiv seed banks also crucial. For the sake of the planet Russia’s bombing needs to stop. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Part II of this article speaks about President Zelensky and the remaining crises discussed in his talk to Indonesians.

Russian and Ukrainian flags. Photo credit: Ivan Petrov, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.