Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: History repeats itself with theft of Ukrainian grain

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The Wall Street Journal has recently documented the Russian Army’s confiscating hundreds of thousands of tons of grain from newly occupied regions of Ukraine. The army has coordinated the transportation of the grain to the Crimean port of Sevastopol for export sale to Russia’s Middle Eastern allies.

Russia is stealing Ukraine’s grain for Russia’s gain. Haven’t we heard this story before? Yes, it is called Holodomor. The word is a compound of the Ukrainian holod (hunger) and mor (plague), or “death by hunger.” During the 1930s, Joseph Stalin forced the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. Independent farmers in the Ukraine resisted, and the Soviet government responded by confiscating their grain. It is estimated that anywhere from 3.5 million to 5 million perished from starvation from 1932 to 1933.

The 2019 movie “Mr. Jones” depicts the British investigative journalist Gareth Jones’ documentation of the Holodomor. Jones noted that, despite anecdotal evidence that grain production was falling in the Soviet Union, Soviet grain exports were financing Soviet industrialization. In a surreptitious visit to Ukraine, he observed and recorded the ongoing starvation. His reports were denied by both the Soviet authorities and the New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty. History is sad, especially when it repeats itself nearly 90 years later.

Thirty years ago, it was hoped such predation by a national government would be relegated to the dustbin of history. The Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact had dissolved, Saddam Hussein was defeated in his attempt to seize oil-rich Kuwait by an international coalition in the first Gulf War. An age of global trade emerged and the percentage of the world’s population living on less than $2 a day, the World Bank definition of extreme poverty, declined from 36% in 1990 to under 10% in 2015. In the post-Cold War world, aggressor countries would be deterred by their fear of isolation and international shunning.

However, Russia’s action in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea and Syria, China’s gulags of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang and its oppression of Hong Kong, along with other continuing conflicts in Africa and Asia, foreshadowed what was to come in Ukraine.

Aggression backed up with weapons does pay, or at the very least, consolidates political power. International shaming and even economic sanctions prove to be feeble forms of retaliation. So much for fantasies about a 21st Century Rules-Based International Order that makes old-fashioned land war unthinkable. Unfortunately, it’s not happening.•


Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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