Russia accused of deliberately trying to cause famine in Ukraine

Fears raised of instability and famine in vulnerable countries as food prices soar

The European Union's agriculture chief accused Russia of deliberately attempting to cause famine through its tactics in Ukraine, as international organisations warn shortages caused by the invasion may cause a global food crisis.

The attack on a country long known as the breadbasket of Europe has already sent up food prices, and there are concerns the disruption could cause instability and famine in vulnerable countries across North Africa and the Middle East that rely on it for staples like cooking oil and wheat.

"The Russian aggressor is destroying the possibility to produce these crops. And indeed they are also deliberately destroying stores, and they're also destroying holdings that have animals," said EU agriculture commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski, who is from Poland.

“It seems quite deliberate. They want to create famine. And this is something that Ukrainians have already lived over the last 100 years or so. This is a method that Russia uses for conquest, and they quite deliberately use that tool of hunger.”

The accusation carries a weighty historical resonance, as millions died in Ukraine in successive famines under Soviet rule during the 20th century, considered by Ukrainians a tactic to suppress national independence movements.

Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Food supplies

Mr Wojciechowski spoke at a press conference on Monday after the 27 EU agriculture ministers met to discuss how to respond to the impact of the invasion on food supplies, as Ukraine accounts for 60 per cent of the EU’s corn supply and almost half of a key component of livestock grain feeds.

The EU is to unveil plans this week to grow additional grains on fallow land to make up for shortages, potentially setting back ambitions to encourage more climate and biodiversity-friendly practices in agriculture.

“I will be bringing measures to Cabinet this week now to provide incentives to farmers to grow more tillage,” Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue told The Irish Times. “I think it makes absolute sense that we don’t leave land fallow this year.”

As the EU agriculture ministers met they were joined by their Ukrainian counterpart Roman Leshchenko over video link, a frequent practice in EU council meetings since the invasion, but Mr Leshchenko had to cut short his presentation due to an air raid siren.

Late on Monday, EU defence ministers were joined by Ukrainian defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov who briefed them on the course of the war. Member states agreed to a plan to bolster joint defence plans in development for the past year.

Known as the Strategic Compass, the document includes a pledge to "spend more and better in defence", strengthen common EU missions, set up a rapid response force of 5,000 troops, bolster joint intelligence and cyber defence, while strengthening partnerships with the United Nations and Nato.

Final approval

The document, which is expected to receive final approval by national leaders when they meet in Brussels later this week, describes Nato and the alliance with the United States as "key to our overall security".

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said Ireland had had a "significant role in shaping" the defence plan and that the country could be part of the EU rapid response force, subject to the so-called "triple lock" of Government, Dáil and UN approval that applies to overseas missions. "If Ireland chooses to be part of that, then of course we can," Mr Coveney said.

Ireland was among the member states to support imposing further sanctions on Russia, including on the energy sector, amid mounting international horror at the growing civilian death toll in Ukraine.

However, EU leaders are not expected to sign off on additional sanctions this week, as a group of member states including Germany are resistant to demands by eastern countries for embargoes on Russian oil and gas.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times