The war in Ukraine is growing more complicated by the day. For the past four months, more Ukrainians have been displaced or had to seek refuge due to the fighting, while Russia advances, slowly but surely.
Moscow is pursuing a strategy of slow control over eastern and southern Ukraine, rather than rapid and complete control over the entire country, in which some 30 out of the country’s 44 million population live in cities.
Ukraine provides more than 40 per cent of the world’s needs of cooking oil, six per cent of its wheat, and a significant portion of the corn market. Some 30 million hectares of corn are grown in Ukraine.
Moscow and its allies in Donbas took control of many strategic and important cities, beginning with those of the eastern region, which are industrial and rich in iron and steel production, such as Luhansk and Donetsk. But soon the forces moved to control Mariupol, a large port on the Sea of Azov (an inland part of the Black Sea) and an industrial area since Soviet times.
Western media has recently reported that Mariupol, captured by Russian forces after fierce battles, is vulnerable to an outbreak of cholera.
Since Russia’s strategy shifted in April to focus first on the east of the country, Moscow’s forces have taken control of the city of Kharkiv, close to the northern Russian-Ukrainian border.
Kharkiv is a city of extraordinary symbolic weight. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kharkiv is proof that Ukraine was part of Russia. The city was also the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the Great Civil War (1919-1922), when the Ukrainian Republic was formed and Kyiv was declared its capital.
The second largest city in Ukraine in terms of population, Kharkiv was inhabited by 1.5 million people before the war broke out on 24 February, and it is a major transportation hub linking the east of the country to the west and to the Russian highway and railway networks.
In Mariupol, Russia and Ukraine fought for several weeks over the city, its port, steel factories and some residential suburbs, until the Russian forces won the battle. Russia’s control of the coast of the Sea of Azov is intended to create a land corridor between Russian territory and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014.
A few days ago, Russian forces took control of Sievierodonetsk, one of the strategic cities in Donbas and “the gate to the Dnieper River”, which divides Ukraine’s east and west, said Walid Mirghani, a Moscow-based Sudanese expert.
With the Russian control of Kherson city, the path is open to the port of Odessa, the largest port in the country and Ukraine’s gateway to the world, from which it exports its valuable food products such as wheat, corn, and cooking oil.
If Russia takes control of Odessa, Ukraine will become a landlocked country, which makes it difficult to export food to Africa and the Middle East, which are suffering from food price hikes.
The slow albeit fierce war has turned millions of Ukrainians into refugees in neighbouring countries and Europe. According to figures on the UNHCR website, more than eight million people have crossed the Ukrainian border to neighbouring countries, the vast majority of whom are women and children. Almost half of these went to Poland, 1.3 million to Russia, 814,000 to Hungary, 691,000 to Romania, more than 500,000 to Moldova, more than 500,000 to Slovakia, and 16,000 to Belarus.
In Europe, Germany received the largest share of Ukrainian refugees (780,000) followed by the Czech Republic (379,000), Turkey (145,000), Italy (137,000), and Spain (124,000).
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the total number of Ukrainian refugees received by non-neighbouring European countries amounted to 2.5 million, that is in addition to people who fled their homes in cities and villages for fear of battles.
With the war now nearing 130 days, peace seems miles away, and the Ukrainians’ suffering and food insecurity are growing more than ever before.
“Dozens of countries in Africa and the Arab world will suffer more because of the Ukraine war,” said Khaled Ismail, professor of agricultural economics in Khartoum. “In Sudan, for example, it has become difficult to buy a loaf of bread, and millions of middle-class families have turned to the traditional Sudanese food, which is millet and sesame oil,” produced in abundance in Sudan.
“Sudan’s food problem can be resolved temporarily, despite many challenges in areas of armed conflict, but the war in Ukraine raised fuel prices, and Khartoum is a net importer of most types of energy,” he added. “The same goes for the entire African Sahel, which is one of the poorest regions in the world. Fear of starvation and the subsequent fall of regimes and insecurity, which in some cases may lead to civil war and even secession, is a justified and legitimate fear.”
According to Mirghani, “if Russia maintains the same strategy, it will not control all the lands it wants before winter, then Europe will have to decide its real position.”
But the reality on the ground seems much more complicated than Mirghani suggests. The price of a barrel of oil and a cubic metre of natural gas have already skyrocketed to an extent that even industrialised nations cannot afford.
Indeed, several countries, such as Japan and France, have stressed the need to ration electricity and energy consumption even amid unprecedented waves of high temperature, fearing that they may have to introduce power cuts a few hours every day in a matter of weeks.
“Fuel price surges prompted the US president to visit the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, to help him secure the midterm elections,” Mirghani pointed out. “The war will go on until Russia achieves its goals, which are the neutralisation and disarmament of Ukraine, and ridding it of neo-Nazism. It is going to be difficult for Europe to maintain its consensus over Ukraine for a long time, particularly because alternatives to Russian gas, for Germany and Italy and other European countries, will not be forthcoming.”
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.