Remember Ukraine's Holodomor as World Hunger Grows | Opinion

Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky has been celebrated throughout the West as a defender of liberal democracy fighting to repel the Kremlin's attempt to restore the territorial integrity of the former Soviet Union. In describing Russia's deliberate targeting of Ukrainian civilians and forced deportations, the Ukrainian president has often relied on the term "genocide" to describe the situation on the ground; a term that was echoed by President Biden before his administration clarified that the United States has not endorsed the term as its official position. While arguments can certainly be made both in favor and against defining Russia's war of aggression as a genocidal act, policymakers must keep this in mind: it has happened before.

Ukraine's great famine, the Holodomor, reached its peak in spring 1933 and left at least 3.9 million Ukrainians dead. Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Communist Party caused those deaths by implementing policies that included the forced collectivization of farms, dekulakization — eliminating farmers who were slightly better off than their peers — and massive grain seizures.

Growing involvement by the Party in Ukraine, as a result of Moscow's intensifying grain requisitions, opened a window of opportunity for Stalin: weaponizing the famine to crush Ukrainian nationalism. During the early 1930s, Soviet police began a campaign of mass repression against Ukrainian intellectuals who had spent years attempting to promote Ukraine's history, language, and culture. Officials affiliated with the Ukrainian People's Republic (a short-lived government following the 1917 Revolution) were persecuted, arrested, and deported. Anne Applebaum's Red Famine offers an impressive historical account of the Soviet weaponization of the famine to target Ukrainian nationalism, resulting in the Sovietization of Ukraine.

Holodomor Commemoration
People light candles in Kyiv on Nov. 27, 2021, during a commemoration ceremony at a monument to victims of the Holodomor famine of 1932-33. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Those who survived the Holodomor shared accounts of complete lawlessness, cannibalism, and mass burials.

The Holodomor — a name created by joining the Ukrainian words for "hunger and extermination" — was recognized as a genocide by 16 countries in 2019. Both houses of the U.S. Congress agree. And after four months of Russia's total war strategy in Ukraine, it is time Western policymakers give serious thought to the Kremlin's willingness and ability to target Ukrainian food supplies again.

According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, Ukraine supplies up to 16 percent of the world's corn exports and more than 40 percent of the world's sunflower oil. Forty percent of the World Food Program's wheat supplies come from Ukraine, too.

As of April 2022, the prices of sugar have risen by 21.8 percent, meat by 21.9 percent, dairy by 47.1 percent and cereals by nearly 70 percent. In Africa, the price of wheat as skyrocketed by 45 percent. Iran has experienced a near 300 percent increase in flour-based staples. Lebanon, which imports most of its wheat from Ukraine, experienced a price spike of more than 3,000 percent. Coupled with other causes of inflation, these rising food prices have fueled protests throughout the world.

According to the World Food Program, 51 million metric tons of grain were exported from Ukraine in the months leading up to Russia's invasion. According to a statement by Ukraine's Ministry for Agriculture, 22 million tons of grain are unable to be moved out of the country, now. Constant Russian bombardment has rendered much-needed infrastructure unusable and the strategic closing of ports on the Black Sea has impeded the flow of Ukrainian wheat to international markets — the consequences of this will be dire, including even greater price spikes. Experts have also warned that not enough storage will be available for the 2022 harvest if the war persists.

Putin's strategic targeting of Ukrainian food supplies and export routes don't only threaten Ukrainian and international food supplies, but the West's leverage over Russia. Underestimating the Kremlin's decision to use Ukrainian food supplies as a bargaining chip for the easing of sanctions would be a terrible miscalculation; one which could lead to unaffordable food prices for millions around the world and a lifeline for Russia's dictator, President Vladimir Putin.

Yoni Michanie is a Middle East Analyst and Ph.D. student at Northeastern University. He can be reached on Twitter, @YoniMichanie.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.