The destruction of Ukrainian farm land, machinery and infrastructure is not collateral damage. It is a core part of Russia’s military strategy.

by Susanne A. Wengle and Vitalii Dankevych

September 1, 2022

The Washington Post

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Destroy a seed, erase a future.

Destroy a seed, erase a future.

On May 16, 2022, tens of thousands of rare seed samples were destroyed in the Russian shelling of Kharkiv’s Yuriev Institute, which houses Ukraine’s National Gene Bank.

The Yuriev Institute has a storied past — its predecessor was founded in 1908, a time when Eurasian grain was feeding the rapidly growing industrial workforce in Western Europe. Located in the university town of Kharkiv, the gene bank had been the home of over 160,000 varieties of plant and crop seeds.

The target was not a coincidence.

The damage inflicted on Ukraine’s National Gene Bank and the loss of valuable seeds were part of a deliberate Russian campaign to harm Ukrainian agriculture, this year and potentially for decades to come.

Eurasian grain has been the focus of global attention in large part because war-related shortages cause hunger abroad.

What has been less well understood is that the targeted destruction of Ukrainian farm land, farm machinery and infrastructure are not collateral damage in a war about territory and geopolitics.

They are a core part of Russia’s military strategy.

Eurasia’s fertile black earth belt, known as chornozem, runs through much of Ukraine. Long growing seasons and ample rainfall provide ideal conditions for growing food commodities such as wheat, corn, oilseeds and sugar beets.

Destroying Ukraine’s farms grievously damages the country’s economy while giving Russia more leverage over its own grain trade partners in Africa and Asia.

We have identified four types of damage that merit the attention of the world’s policymakers.

The first is theft. Russian troops are reported to have stolen various types of agricultural machinery — combines, tractors, etc., moving them to Russia or Russian-controlled areas.

In addition, millions of tons of grains and oilseeds worth hundreds of millions of dollars were seized from grain elevators in eastern Ukraine over the summer.

The second type of damage was brought about by the disruption of this year’s crop cycle. Spring wheat, corn and many industrial crops are typically planted in late March after the last spring frosts, but planting coincided this year with the early weeks of the war.

Disruptions caused by the war have put seeds, fertilizer, fuel and other key inputs in short supply — and a large share of the agricultural labor force is fighting in the territorial defense forces or has fled. This delayed and disrupted planting, growing and harvest of much of the country’s crop.

As grain reached maturity, the Russian military set fire to fields, especially in the Donetsk, Mykolaiv and Kherson regions. Across Ukraine, an estimated 70,000 hectares and hundreds of thousands of tons of grain were burned in July alone.

War with Russia has also wrought havoc on agricultural infrastructure, a third type of harm. This includes damage to farm land from bombing and land mines, as well as the destruction of machinery, irrigation systems, and storage and transport infrastructure. About a third of all irrigated agricultural land in Ukraine is located in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, both partially occupied by Russian troops.

Russian forces have bombed grain elevators and port terminals. A missile strike on the sea grain port “Nika-Tera” in Mykolaiv, Ukraine’s third largest in terms of shipping volumes, destroyed the port’s grain terminal.

A fourth type of damage is related to Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, the main export routes for Ukrainian food commodity crops. In 2021, Ukraine exported nearly 45 million tons of cereals and legumes, the vast majority of it by sea. China is the single largest importer of Ukrainian agrifood products; the E.U. is the second largest market.

At the outset of the war, millions of tons of grain were still in storage and could not be shipped, threatening global food security.

Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement brokered by Turkey on July 22 to open “grain corridors” and resume shipments of grain, oilseed and other crops from three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea: Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdennyi.

But as the harvest season gets underway, Ukraine’s capacity to maintain grain exports still faces challenges. Several other ports are still unable to accept and send cargo due to the Russian sea blockade.

The three ports that are in operation will have to export millions of tons of grain each month just to keep up with this year’s harvest.

Yet, as the bombing of the Yuriev Institute demonstrates, Russia’s war on Ukrainian agriculture is operating on a longer time horizon.

Attacks on the Yuriev seedbank and vital storage, transport and export infrastructure threatens the prospects of Ukrainian agriculture long after the war ends.

The destruction of agricultural assets is part of a calculated effort to inflict harm on a sector that historically has held enormous economic significance for Ukraine.

Russia is well aware of the significance of Ukrainian agriculture and the fecundity of its soil.

Nearly a century ago, the Soviet Union waged a brutal war on Ukrainian peasants during the collectivization of agriculture, a top-down drive to modernize rural production that resulted in famine, death and destruction of agriculture.

Compared to the 1930s, Ukrainian farmers and fields may stand a better chance today. Even as the valuable and rare seeds of the National Gene Bank have been destroyed, Ukrainian farmers have managed to sow, harvest and resume exports.

As a Ukrainian proverb says: “They wanted to bury us, but they did not know we were seeds.”

Susanne Wengle is the N.R. Dreux Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, and author of “Black Earth, White Bread: A Technopolitical History of Russian Agriculture.

Vitalii Dankevych is dean of the Faculty of Law, Public Administration, and National Security at Polissia National University, Zhytomyr, Ukraine. He also owns and runs his family’s farm.