‘Putin’s attacks on Ukraine’s agricultural sector are deliberate’: An interview with Mykhailo Amosov (Ecoaction, Ukraine)


Interview with Mykhailo Amosov by Federico Fuentes.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reap untold devastation on the nation’s critical agricultural sector, leading to severe disruptions to the global food market and exacerbating world hunger.

Ukraine’s agricultural sector — which employs about 14% of the population — accounted for more than 40% of the country’s exports in 2021. It is predicted, however, that exports will fall by more than half this year. This is a result of Russia’s deliberate policy of destroying this key sector of Ukraine’s economy by blockading sea ports, stealing grain stocks, destroying agricultural facilities and littering farming areas with landmines.

Federico Fuentes spoke to Mykhailo Amosov, an agricultural expert at the Center for Environmental Initiatives “Ecoaction” about this situation, the links between Russia’s war and the fight against climate change, the dangers posed by the standoff at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and prospects for a “Green Reconstruction”. A much shorter version of this interview appeared in Green Left.

What can you tell us about the agreement signed on July 22 between Ukraine and Russia, whereby Russia agreed to lift its blockade on ships carrying food exports leaving Ukraine’s Black Sea ports?

Ukraine is a large agricultural country. It has a huge capacity when it comes to grain exports, which is an important source of income for Ukraine’s budget. Agriculture represents about 12% of the country’s GDP, but most of this comes from exports, so Ukraine is dependent on its seaports to receive this income.

Before the war, Ukraine had plans to export about 6 million tons a month via its sea ports. But once Russia blockaded these sea ports, it became impossible to export. In the first months of the war, exports dropped to around 500,000 tons a month. This meant grains had to be stored in silos, as there was no way to get them onto the world market.

The recent agreement has given us the opportunity to once again export Ukrainian grain. But, unfortunately, it is not on the same scale as it was before the war. We are only dealing with small doses of grain export: it is more than it was before the agreement, but it is not enough to allow us to free up grain currently stored in silos, much less deal with future harvests. A new harvest is coming for wheat and barley, as is the next stage of harvest for corn and sunflower. Unfortunately, we will need huge silos to store these harvests as the current levels of exports is nowhere near what is needed to get this produce to the world market.

The agreement will at least help Ukraine earn some money from sales on the global market that our government can use to help support Ukrainian citizens who have lost everything. We hope it will also help keep agricultural enterprises afloat. Thousands of agricultural enterprises are considering closing because it is impossible to continue operating if your only source of income is cut off.

Of course, this agreement is helpful, but we should be moving faster. I should also mention that we were afraid Russia would not abide by the agreement. In fact, the very next day after it was signed, Russia launched a missile strike on the port of Odesa, which is crazy but it is to be expected for Russia to act like this.

At the same time, we are attempting to find new ways to export via other routes. Our railway system is different to those in European countries, which makes it difficult to export grain this way. But I saw recently that Ukraine has restored an old railway line between Berezyne, in western Ukraine, and Basarabeasca, in Moldova, which had not been used since the times of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is working to restore a lot of railway lines that had been forgotten for decades. This should help us to increase grain export levels.

Beyond the blockade of Ukraine’s sea ports, how else has Russia’s occupation affected Ukraine’s agricultural sector?

I cannot find the words to truly describe its impact, but it has been terrible. Many agricultural farms have been completely destroyed and livestock animals killed due to indiscriminate shelling by Russians troops: they do not just target military bases or trenches but everything they see with their copters; they are shelling everything.

This has caused tremendous damage to Ukraine’s agriculture. In monetary terms, it is estimated that the war has caused at least $30 billion worth of damages: this includes damage caused by the blockade of sea ports of about $25 million, as well as direct damage to crops, infrastructure and farms destroyed by Russian shelling, which is estimated to be about $5 billion. And the war has not ended.

Already, about 10 million hectares of land has been lost for agricultural activities due to landmines, shelling, bombardments, etc. We will need a lot of funds to de-mine these territories and restore them for cultivation, but also for conservation. The war has not just hit the agricultural sector but damaged wetlands, forests, and marine ecosystems. As an environmental organisation, we see an important need to promote conservation once the war ends. Currently, 70% of Ukrainian territory is agricultural land, but we need to reduce this number to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production and increase the amount set aside to protect biodiversity.

It is important to add that some see Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s agricultural sector as deliberate, because of its importance to Ukraine in economic terms but also because of the role agriculture plays in social life. Unlike big agricultural corporations, who have their offices in Kyiv and are not interested in local communities, small farmers live, work and communicate with local people on a day-to-day basis, helping others when they need it.

These farmers are very patriotic people. Many of them have now joined the resistance in the south. There is a strong history of Ukrainian farmers being part of underground resistance movements, because they know the local area and the people very well. Because of this, they have a certain level of influence over the local population, in some cases a level of influence greater than that of local government officials. In some places, when Russian occupiers enter these territories, it is more important to talk with certain local farmers than local government officials because of the importance they have among the community.

There have been a lot of memes and stories circulating on social media claiming Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has used the war to sell off the country’s agricultural land to Western multinationals. What can you tell us about agricultural land ownership in Ukraine and Zelensky’s policies?

Such stories are just Russian propaganda. The reality is that, last year, Ukraine launched its land market. Prior to 2021, there was a moratorium on the sale of land plots. From July last year, Ukrainians have had the right to buy or sell land. According to this law, only private individuals can buy or sell land plots. Legal entities established under Ukrainian legislation will only be allowed to participate in the land market from 2024. So it is a two stage process: from 2021, individuals can participate in the land market; while from 2024, Ukrainian legal entities can participate.

There are still limitations on land sales: an individual can only buy up 100 hectares. Of course, if you belong to a large and wealthy family, you can concentrate some farmland, but it’s still not a big amount. Once legal entities are able to enter the market in 2024, the limit will rise to 10,000 hectares, but again, this is only for Ukrainian legal entities and not for international companies.

What international companies are allowed to do is lease land from the government or individuals for agricultural activities. Contrary to the fake news circulating, this was already the case before Zelensky. International companies can sign agreements to lease land for up to 49 years at a very cheap price. For these companies, it doesn’t make sense to buy land if you can lease it for half a century. Even if they want to build agricultural facilities on the land, this is not an issue under the law.

That is why international companies have already established many enterprises in Ukraine, in particular German companies that are interested in producing rapeseed, as there is great interest in the European market to use it for biofuels.

What can you quickly tell us about the current situation at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant? What are environmentalists in Ukraine calling for as a solution, both immediately and more broadly with regards to nuclear power plants?

As an environmental organisation, Ecoaction was pushing to decommission Ukraine’s nuclear power plant reactors even before the war. Ukraine has about 15 reactors and most of them are obsolete. We had been pushing the government to decommission these reactors as they already posed a danger for Ukrainians. Now, due to Russia’s invasion, they have become an immediate danger not just for Ukraine, but for Europe and even Russia.

Russia’s use of the largest European nuclear power plant as a military base from which to attack the Ukrainian army is a serious and irresponsible breach of nuclear safety rules and another example of Russia’s disregard for international nuclear law and norms. Russia is blackmailing the world with the threat of a large-scale nuclear disaster at Zaporizhzhia. There is a huge risk that an accident larger than Chernobyl could occur at Zaporizhzhia.

It is therefore necessary to completely demilitarise the Zaporizhzhia plant and return it to Ukrainian control. At the same time, we need to develop action plans to minimise potential nuclear safety risks and consider the possibility of shifting all power units at the Zaporizhzhia plant to a “cold” shutdown state.

Ecoaction has participated in discussions regarding Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction and proposed the idea of a “Green Reconstruction”. What can you tell us about these discussions?

Ecoaction participated in the recent conference on Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, which was jointly hosted by Ukraine and Switzerland in Lugarno on July 4-5. Our executive director traveled to Switzerland to participate.

What was interesting about the discussion was that the environment section of the discussion was housed under energy. This explains a lot about their vision, which sees environmental recovery as a way to promote the expansion of the nuclear sector and fossil fuel projects, such as gas for domestic consumption. Meanwhile concrete environmental actions are limited to small projects such as ecoducts, or wildlife bridges. Ecoducts might make for an interesting media conference and be easy to sell as taking action on the environment, but it is not what we want or need. Instead, we need more systemic change.

It is evident that hundreds of billions of dollars will be needed for Ukraine’s reconstruction over the next 10 years. This could rise depending on how long the war continues for, but we hope it will end soon — with a Ukrainian victory, of course! Current reconstruction plans are ambitious, but they will need a lot of money and the Ukrainian government is hoping to involve different international financial institutions and the European Union and the United States.

But if they want to get funds, for example, from the European Union, they will have to improve environmental standards. Yet there is no real space for discussing environmental standards, in large part because all environmental discussion is concentrated in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. So you have situations, like we had before the war, where, under the Association Agreement with the EU, we needed to decrease nitrate pollution, but the Ministry of Agriculture said their ministry had nothing to do with the environment and there was no communication between the two ministries. While ultimately the nitrate directive was implemented, this problem of lack of communication continues to exist.

What we have seen to date is disappointing, but we are focused on improving this reconstruction plan and hope we can achieve changes. We hope, at some stage, the government will organise roundtables with representatives of civil society to discuss these issues, where we can provide our vision and principles for sustainable reconstruction. For now, we face the difficulties of war and martial law, which makes it impossible to access and disseminate information freely. This makes it harder for us to campaign. But we are trying our best, including using our strength, which is social media.

The reality is that even before the war, the environmental movement in Ukraine was quite weak, it was comprised perhaps of maybe 6 or 7 organisations and tens of activists. So support from other environmentalists around the world is important. We will have a lot of work to do when it comes to reconstruction, to rebuilding a better Ukraine — or better said, an even better Ukraine than the one we had before February 24. We will need the expertise of those in the international community with experience in post-war recovery and reconstruction. Of course, for now, the best help you can give is to support Ukraine win this war.

Ecoaction argues that climate change and the war against Ukraine have a direct link. What is this link?

The answer is fossil fuels and the dependence that exists on them. Russia has a lot of fossil fuels it can sell to fuel its war in Ukraine. It is very easy for Russia to obtain large sums of funds to finance its war machine. At the same time, there have been a lot of discussions at the United Nations level regarding climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels.

Moving away from fossil fuels is a means to stop funding war while building more sustainable economies based on renewable energies. Accelerating the abandonment of fossil fuels could stop the war in Ukraine and prevent future resource-based conflicts. Instead what we are seeing is that countries are preferring to look elsewhere for their fossil fuels.

Something else that we are seeing is that despite the sanctions and stated support from European countries for Ukraine, EU imports from Russia have grown in monetary terms. What does this tell us about these countries' support for Ukraine and their interest — or lack thereof — in moving away from a fossil-fuel economy?

It certainly looks like European governments are taking an ambiguous policy towards Ukraine. They are trying to maintain their high living standards and avoid any disruptions at home. I can understand that, but if they really want to help us, they should move quickly to close the gas pipelines from Russia. We are, of course, very thankful for their financial support. Ukraine needs at least $5 billion a month to fill the budgetary gap caused by this war. We face a big challenge and we understand that Europe does as well. But we need to move faster.

Revenue from fossil fuel exports provides 40% of Russia’s budget, and Russia has already said that increased earnings from fossil fuel exports will be used to fund its war in Ukraine. How can countries say they support Ukraine, but at the same time pump even more money into enabling Russia’s continued aggression?

Unfortunately, for now, it seems European countries are moving very slowly. Globally, we need to speed up the deployment of clean energy to replace fossil fuel imports and ease the high fuel prices which are driving up Russia’s revenues. Our main request to European countries and the European Union is to move faster. I can understand how difficult it is to break links with Russia, but this needs to be done to stop this war and save Ukrainian lives.