Warning. At the very moment we are preparing this edition, on Monday morning, April 4, we learn of the discovery of numerous bodies of civilians killed in Boutcha, in the suburbs of Kiev, for which the Russian army would be responsible. If this were the case, it would be a violation of international humanitarian law and should be judged as a war crime.
This article focuses mainly on the geopolitical, food and humanitarian consequences of this war. It may seem far from the sad reality of the war in Ukraine, which we discuss in an article by Pierre Brunet. But we do not forget that the city of Marioupol is already the tragic symbol of this merciless war and the voluntary destruction of the theater of the city where a great number of civilians had taken refuge is also a war crime. Even war has rules which are the Geneva Conventions, the International Humanitarian Law. I write here in my personal name.
At the beginning of this year, few believed in the possibility of a generalized and large-scale war in Ukraine. It seemed improbable. However, many signs announced it! On the contrary, after a month of war experienced live on television, we got used to it without knowing how long it will last and what will be the consequences at the political, economic, military, geopolitical level without forgetting the human cost. Let’s not forget that this war started in 2014 in the east of Ukraine in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk would have already made 14,000 deaths!
In 5 weeks, as of March 30, a quarter of the population has been displaced or made refugees, that is to say 3.9 million people left abroad knowing that nine out of 10 refugees are women and children. An additional 6.9 million people fled the combat zones, moving mainly to the west of the country. In comparison, this number of refugees was reached in Syria after more than 3 years of war. From a humanitarian point of view, this is a crisis of great magnitude, both in terms of the number of refugees and displaced persons in such a short period of time, the scale of the destruction and the difficulties in deploying sufficient aid in the eastern part of the country in the war-torn cities.
Wars disrupt territories, populations and societies and constantly restructure the world. Beyond the gigantic human and material destruction, the First World War caused the fall of four empires. The Second World War led to the occupation of the eastern half of Europe by the USSR for half a century. If the war in Ukraine is limited to this country, its consequences are already global in geopolitical, economic, military and political terms.
For this war is the consequence of a profound geopolitical change. What was taking shape has suddenly become a fracture. Russia and China have entered into a confrontation with the Western world and the international order resulting from the Second World War, which they want to change.
Russia, China, “a friendship without limits”.
We remember that on February 4, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a 16-page declaration proclaiming that “the friendship between our two countries knows no limits. More concretely, it is about the affirmation of an alternative political model challenging the liberal democracy and the world order that follows from it. Ukraine is to Russia what Taiwan is to China!
Of course, one can evoke the vote at the united nations on march 3rd asking for the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine and to retain the figure of 141 countries that voted for and 5 countries that voted against. But the figure to remember is also the abstention of 34 countries including China but also Algeria, Bangladesh, Central African Republic, India, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa, Vietnam to name but a few. Countries representing half of the world population! Is not abstaining to let it happen?
Unless Russia loses this war and Vladimir Putin sees the control of power in Moscow slipping away from him, it is likely that this division of the world will contribute to reshaping it and antagonizing it. This war could also awaken others, as in the Balkans, or lead to changes in the Alliance, as recently in the Sahel. We must also note that Western mistakes have both fuelled Russian and Chinese resentment, as in Kosovo and Libya, and weakened their moral and strategic position, as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The global impact of the war on energy and food.
The immediate effect of the war will also be the impact of the lack of raw materials at the global level and the sharp increase in their price, whether it is gas, oil, but also basic food products such as wheat, corn, sunflower, rape, soy. Without even mentioning rare metals and the effects of sanctions against Russia and the counter-sanctions that the latter will take in turn against the “unfriendly” countries.
Russia and Ukraine are two grain giants, one accounts for 20% of world wheat exports and the other for 10%. Thus, Ukraine usually exports 20 million tons of wheat per year. Today, 7 million tons of wheat are immobilized in the country and 50% of the most productive land is located east of the Dnieper near the combat zones. Finally, the four grain export ports, Odessa, Mykolaïv, Tchornomorsk and Yuzhnyi are blocked by the Russians who control the Black Sea.
Another example, Russia and Ukraine represent 60% of sunflower exports! This makes some experts say that world food security is in danger. The countries of the Maghreb and the Middle East account for 35 to 40% of the world’s grain purchases. In developing countries, people spend 35 to 40% of their budget on food. Thus, 26 countries are literally at each other’s throats if we observe the share of Russian and Ukrainian wheat in their imports.
Also of concern, a report released by WFP warns that costs for its global operations will increase by US$29 million per month. Adding pre-existing increases of US$42 million since 2019, the total additional costs facing WFP amount to US$71 million per month. Some countries are particularly vulnerable to any blockage of wheat imports such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen.
According to the FAO, the sudden and prolonged reduction of food exports from Ukraine and Russia could result in higher prices for economically vulnerable countries. FAO simulations indicate that the number of undernourished people could increase by 8 to 13 million in 2022 and 2023 in Asia-Pacific, sub-Saharan Africa, the Near East and North Africa.
Paradoxically, humanitarian aid could be increasingly hampered at the very moment when it will be needed more than ever.
What impact will the changing geopolitical environment have on humanitarian aid?
Last August, Hubert Védrine, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, declared “Afghanistan is the tomb of the right to interfere”. Let us be clear. What was once called “the duty of humanitarian interference” does not correspond to the political interference of States in the affairs of other States.
However, it must be noted that the “duty of humanitarian assistance”, which is always necessary, has often gone hand in hand with major political and military interventions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or the Sahel. This was not a political choice on the part of humanitarians, but a simple consequence of these conflicts.
This is neither new nor surprising insofar as the geopolitics of conflicts dictate a large part of the humanitarian agenda. This was the case during the Cold War when modern humanitarianism appeared in the 1980s in Afghanistan in particular. It was still the case during the next phase of the great Western expeditions. Similarly, from the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the preventive war against terrorism to the Ukraine in a high intensity war between states.
If we are entering a new phase in international relations, it is quite possible that the same will happen on the humanitarian level. The return of State sovereignty, which has already been observed for years, will be reinforced by the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic and the need to reindustrialize, to reinforce food sovereignty while increasing military capabilities in the once again possible perspective of inter-State war.
Here again, globalization and multilateralism, which have accompanied, if not permeated, humanitarianism, will be weakened if not overwhelmed by the dynamics of security, sovereignty, independence or non-alignment and perhaps even by a return to the right of peoples to self-determination.
It is often said that the essence of humanitarianism is to be able to adapt. It seems to me that the strategic challenge for humanitarians must be to maintain access to relief for populations in danger while integrating new constraints (political, administrative, etc.) and respecting more than ever the cultures, identities, customs and legitimate local governments.
These changes will not happen instantly everywhere in the same way. Some have already begun to manifest themselves, thus announcing more substantial evolutions that will probably infuse with time and crises. However, this will remain to be observed, documented, and eventually put into perspective.
In the meantime, what are the main humanitarian effects to be taken into account and some courses of action?
- Humanitarian aid must be massively deployed in the east as soon as possible to compensate for the cessation of production, the disruption of food supply chains, the lack of drivers and trucks. The priority is to rescue families in partially encircled cities such as Kharkiv, Dnipro, Sumy and to prepare for the upcoming fighting in the Donbass.
- First of all, we must respond as completely and quickly as possible to the needs of the populations that are victims of the war where it is taking place and as long as it lasts.
- Anticipate what the humanitarian community might be able to do at the end with the Ukrainian authorities at the end of the war to help rebuild and restart income generating activities.
- Anticipate the food shock for importing countries dependent on Russian and Ukrainian cereals and look for alternative solutions, notably through local production.
- Anticipate the impact of rising prices on humanitarian aid worldwide and work with institutional partners to find appropriate solutions (innovation, prioritization, etc.) and increase resources.
- Contribute to the FARM (Food and Agriculture Resilience) initiative by acting against speculation, adapting and strengthening solidarity mechanisms and investing in local production capacities.
I am writing these lines a few hours before their publication. The situation in Ukraine is very changing and uncertain, so I thank you for your understanding of the figures, analyses and recommendations.
Regarding the strategic relationship between Russia and China, the recent EU-China Summit confirms the strategic alliance between the two countries and the intense communication activity of China on social networks in support of the Russian position is unequivocal.
The forward-looking content of this article does not prevent me, on the contrary, from sharing an immense sorrow for the Ukrainians who did not ask to be invaded and bombed like in Marioupol. If it was necessary that Ukraine adopts a status of neutral buffer state while being independent like other countries before it at various times of their history (Finland, Austria, Afghanistan), was it absolutely necessary to pass by a war which is a failure for all. One day negotiation will have to prevail! In the meantime, there will be an immensity of pain and destruction and a deep and bloody fracture that is not ready to close.
You will find in this edition 2 other articles on Ukraine which are complementary and different from this one :
- Article by Pierre Brunet “Ukraine: unprecedented crisis, humanitarian aid at a loss”: Ukraine : crise sans précédent, l’humanitaire à tâtons ? – Défis Humanitaires (defishumanitaires.com).
- Article by François Grunewald “War in Ukraine, political-military and humanitarian disaster: the yardstick of history” : https://defisumanitaires.com/2022/03/30/tribune-libre/
PS/ This site is free and independent. A donation (donate here) from you allows Humanitarian Challenges to appear and develop. Thank you very much.