Mar 28

Ukraine Chronicles #4

Techbro Tito & Ben Boyce chats, 501c3 update, A Word About Wheat

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Exiting Ukraine

Hello Friends, I’m back in America. The return trip ended up being almost as dramatic as the trip out: I didn’t get dragged into a room by a squad of Ukrainian soldiers and shaken down for medical gear this time, but the American authorities are very interested in hearing from those returning from the current European land war.

I was mentally prepared for it after the warning on Twitter, and to be fair it definitely was a more professional encounter than my Ukraine entry. Essentially I was taken aside after passport control for a short interview and a quick glance through my bags, they seem to be mainly interested in who’s going there and why.

It wasn’t an adversarial interrogation and probably only took 20 minutes, but nonetheless please note and prepare for this if you happen to take a jaunt over there as well, dear reader.

I did also have a momentary covid scare: two of the people I exited Ukraine with tested positive on return, and the runny nose, cough, and scratchy voice had me running for my stockpile of government-issued antigen tests. The tickle in my throat had started the day of departure, and I breathed a sigh of relief after the airport test came back negative and chalked it up to lack of sleep and the stress of travel.

My two pozzed friends ran the same gauntlet -with the same initial test results- however, so the doubt immediately clawed its way back in. Thankfully, after two tests a day apart, I can now report I’m most likely afflicted with a standard cold virus.

Our 501c3 non profit finally complete

Operation WheatFox is now officially a non-profit. Part of the purpose of my first trip was to take an initial shipment of badly-needed medical supplies to expat friends in country, and it made a difference. We ended up splitting the shipment between a connection in Yavoriv and the Garrison Church in Lviv. The supplies sent to Yavoriv ended up being used in the aftermath of the cruise missile strike on the base and the part sent with the church was shipped directly to the front lines, so we -me and everyone that donated money, time, and advice- definitely made a difference already.

If you’d like us to continue our work, please click on the link here or above and make a tax-deductible donation. We have sourced IFAKs in Slovakia that we’re currently focusing on getting in country, and every little bit helps.

Ben Boyce Interview

I had another pleasant chat with Benjamin Boyce before I left Warsaw enroute home, I was a bit tired but despite that have gotten excellent feedback on it. We covered a good bit, but if you’d like to hear the Ukrainian shakedown story, what happened when a mass funeral for Ukrainian soldiers is interrupted by an air raid, and how a war zone reminds me of a Hurricane, be sure to watch. My favorite feedback so far:

I want to add that Erin is extremely inspiring person. Personally, I had some hard time lastly and Erin’s work and courage truly lifted my up. The Universe in which an American trans-woman flies half a world to Ukraine in order to bring medical aid to her friend who is a Greek-Catholic priest and where she makes friends with some Ukrainian Muslim guy is definitely worth living in.

Chat with Techbro Tito on Ukraine

Techbro Tito joins me for Part 1 of a discussion on Ukraine, we have the usual romping chat about angles you don’t really hear anywhere else. We ended up covering potential knock-on effects of the war, specifically the importance of wheat and what disruption in Ukraine can mean. It’s less so that Ukraine and Russia are a significant source of global wheat exports, than Ukraine happens to be the major source for wheat in the MENA(Middle East/North Africa) region. Most countries actually produce the majority of their wheat domestically, except for a handful of (notoriously unstable) ones that depend most heavily on Ukraine. Egypt, for example, imports over half its wheat, and 80% of the imported wheat comes from Ukraine; roughly 50% of the Egyptian wheat supply may potentially need to be resourced on short notice, further complicated by disrupted supply chains.

From Middle East Eye:

Russia’s invasion of its neighbour - and the ensuing sanctions and hit on global markets - has slashed supply and doubled Egypt’s bread prices.

Egypt, like other wheat-importing countries around the region suffering from shortages and price hikes, is particularly vulnerable when it comes to grain supplies…

…Firstly, the government has offered incentives to local wheat producers to encourage them to sell their produce to the government instead of the private sector. 

Secondly, the ministry of supply now requiresgrowers to sell a certain amount to government-affiliated buyers.

Fertilisers will be free in the summer season for those who sell 90 percent of their wheat to the government.

But those who fail to deliver their quota to government-run silos risk between six months and two years in jail and a fine of between 100,000 pounds ($6,450) and 500,000 pounds ($32,250).

This appears to be the first time that Cairo has resorted to such exceptional measures to secure enough wheat for Egypt’s subsidised bread.

Apart from banning the export of a long list of food items, the government is also imposing tight controls on the commodities market to ensure that traders will not raise prices.

The Ukrainian winter wheat will need to be harvested starting in the next month or so, further complicated by the fact most of it happens to be in the southern part of the country where Russia seems to be making the best progress. If Russia repositions its southern forces to the West if/when Mariupol is taken, takes Odessa and the Black Sea coast, and closes off Ukrainian access to the sea, then it may be impossible for Ukrainian farmers to export the little bit they do harvest.

It’s still fairly early, but we’ll need to watch the MENA region closely over the next few months. The 2011 Arab Spring was largely kicked off by a spike in food prices, if the global spike in fertilizer prices and other farming input costs collides with a wheat shortfall to these particular nations we could see things get sporty once again.

A word on casualties, and possible Russian territorial objectives

I think that, after a month of war, it’s abundantly clear things aren’t going as Russia hoped. I think most of us realize Russia expected Ukraine to roll over like 2014, however everything I’ve seen and heard indicates the Ukrainians are “fighting like lions”, to quote a legionnaire I spoke with. The Ukrainian spirit is infectious in person and their morale is high, it’s essentially impossible not to admire them and their determination when you experience it first-hand. One observation I have made is that Putin has ironically become the father of Ukraine, because this war has created a degree of unity and national spirit that evidently didn’t exist previously.

I do think it’s important though to resist getting so caught up in the cheerleading, that you can’t assess facts on the ground. Unfortunately this is a conflict with such advanced Information Operations on both sides that it’s a little difficult to get a read of things. Casualty counts in particular are something widely debated, and I think at this state it’s safe to say that the numbers of killed and wounded are well into the thousands. This shouldn’t be surprising, but for some it apparently is. What we’re seeing in this war is something we haven’t seen for almost 80 years: a European land war between two somewhat evenly matched, relatively modern armies. It was always going to devolve into a meatgrinder.

This is a really great video worth watching on the topic of how little we really know about the current state of things:

As for my thoughts, I think Russia taking (much less holding) the entire country is off the table. If I had to guess, I think he goes for taking as much of Novorossiya as possible. It’s the centennial of the founding of the USSR and the formal addition of those oblasts to Ukraine, and it would provide a land bridge from Crimea to the Donbass. It would also cut off Ukrainian access to the Black Sea.

Novorossiya territorial claims in light green, Donbass in dark green

I may be getting out over my skis here a bit, but if I had to guess I’d say from here we see:

  • Russians take Mariupol,

  • Freeing up forces to push West towards Odessa,

  • Take as much of the coastline as possible while increasing strikes in the West of the country, including Lviv,

  • Negotiations involving Russia keeping as much of the south of the country as they can, using the north as a bargaining chip.

I guess we’ll see how it goes from here.

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