'Hunger catastrophe looming', Zelenskiy warns Jakarta town hall meeting, with Ukraine’s grain cut off from the world

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has warned that come July, the world will see the real extent of the food insecurity brought on by Russia’s invasion of his country when stocks from the previous year are used up and destitution will visit the “already poor”.

He said on Friday that the United Nation’s (UN) estimate of over 40 million people facing the prospect of hunger this year was “conservative” and a “catastrophe” is looming.

“In July, when many countries will see their stocks from the previous year depleted, it will become obviously clear that the catastrophe is coming closer,” Zelenskiy told a virtual ‘town hall’ meeting organised by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), a Jakarta-based civil society group promoting internationalism.

While the president has been addressing audiences around the world virtually since the invasion began, this was his first address to an Asian audience in a town hall setting.


“You can check your prices at stores. You will see them increasing, a harbinger of destitution for those who are already poor and also for the middle class. This will bring political chaos for certain regions of the world,” said Zelenskiy.

He said Ukraine is one of the “biggest and most reliable foodstuff exporters” globally, exporting tens of millions of tonnes of grain and produce annually.

Currently, 22 million tonnes of grain are “sitting in silos in Ukraine” as the country cannot send them abroad to “where they are needed at this time” as Russia has blockaded ports in the Black Sea and Azov Sea, Zelenskiy added.

The impact of the loss of such grain from the international market is already being felt with “catastrophic spikes” in the price of grains, cereals and other foods, he said.

Dino Patti Djalal, a former Indonesian deputy foreign minister and FPCI’s founder, said it was “critical” for Zelenskiy to talk to an Asian audience as there is a perception among some in the region that the war is “a European problem”.


He said the Ukrainian president needed to “reinforce the view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has significance far beyond Europe, and that it endangers the already fragile vision of a rules-based world order, not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe that should be the concern of all countries”.

Last week, UN chief Antonio Guterres warned of years of mass hunger and famine if the growing global food crisis goes unchecked. He urged Russia to release Ukrainian grain.

Around the world, 44 million people in 38 countries are at emergency levels of hunger, Guterres warned. He noted that Russia’s invasion of its neighbour has effectively ended Ukraine’s food exports, with price increases of up to 30 per cent for staple foods threatening people in countries across Africa and the Middle East.


Before Russia’s invasion, which began on February 24, Ukraine was seen as the world’s ‘bread basket’, exporting 4.5 million tonnes of agricultural produce per month through its ports, including 12 per cent of the planet’s wheat, 15 per cent of its corn and half of its sunflower oil.

But with Odesa, Chornomorsk and other ports now cut off from the world by Russian warships, supplies can only travel on congested land routes – and these efforts to get the produce out are under Russian attack.

Zelenskiy said his nation was “working on measures to alleviate the food crisis. We are trying to find new routes. We want to supply the world market with our grain, using railways and European ports. Even these attempts Russia tries to cut short, destroying our railways, our logistical hubs”.

The Ukrainian president also warned that Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea and parts of the Azov Sea was a kind of “training” in aggression and had implications for other nations.

“This seaport blockade is a training for our potential aggressors, who want to subjugate neighbours or take over territory. If Russia is successful in going unpunished for that (sea blockade) in this war against Ukraine, then other countries will see that sea blockade is an ‘admissible’ pressure in the modern world,” said Zelenskiy.

This meant “that no country or trade route will be able to feel safe,” he added.


Zelenskiy urged Indonesia and the rest of the world to unite in helping to end the war so Ukraine could help end the food crisis. If the world could help unblock his country’s ports, Zelenskiy said Ukraine would send out “its reserves”.

However, he acknowledged there is not as much grain as there used to be. “The new harvest is much smaller because Russian troops mined our fields and destroyed our agricultural equipment,” he said.

He also said Russia was using an international food crisis “as a weapon to pressure the world” and he was pessimistic about the prospect of there being any real dialogue for peace.

“I haven’t heard even once from them responding to a proposal (from Zelenskiy) to stop this war.”

He said he was in favour of negotiations and supported a diplomatic solution.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.


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