In mid-May, VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze spoke with Alexandra Vasylenko, special envoy on coordination of humanitarian assistance to the minister for foreign affairs of Ukraine. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VOA: The devastation of the war (in Ukraine) is affecting food security in the world. How can we estimate and assess what’s going on and how it would affect Ukrainian agricultural business and world business?
Vasylenko: Given that Ukraine is one of the main exporters of grain — of wheat, corn, buckwheat and sunflower oil — the implications of this war will be really hard, and we will feel it not only this year but also in coming years, three to five years at least. We already started sowing campaigns in almost all regions of Ukraine, but because of a huge mine decontamination mission there, it is very insecure for our farmers to perform sowing campaigns. But they already started doing this, even in the Zaporizhzhia region close to the front line. They’re performing their duty in helmets and vests.
The problem is not only with the sowing campaigns. We have an acute shortage of fuel, which is required for sowing campaigns, and it will be required for harvesting. Russian troops are trying to shell our railway stations, and they are focusing on the main railway complex. They destroyed a lot of grain storage as well, so we need to find out how we can store grain before we export it.
We also have very limited logistics capacity right now from the south and southeast because our Black Sea ports are blocked by Russian troops and mines. And to be figuring out alternative logistics routes can be really different from looking at the south in Romania. You’re looking at Poland, and you’re trying to figure out alternative routes with the European Union, using multimodal connections such as grain cargo lorries and, of course, seaports.
We get what we can see. If COVID-19 worsens world hunger, this war will have even more effects. According to the first quarterly report of FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) for crops and production for harvest, already 44 countries in the world are experiencing hunger; almost plus seven countries have been added to this list.
Projections for the harvest season in Ukraine are still very high. But as I said before, this situation is really complex with logistics, and we do not know how it will unfold and how we can harvest. So, sowing campaigns have started, and we will try to do our best to provide the world with the grain and to keep the world food security on the same and stable level, but we need help — and need to see how we can solve our problems.
VOA: There is a lot of talk about Ukraine entering the European Union. Is Ukraine ready for it? Do you see this as an opportunity and possibility?
Vasylenko: Ukraine is already a part of the huge and complex logistic partnership of Europe, and we are already one of the biggest trading partners of the European Union. And I think this situation is an opportunity to simplify procedures for both partners. And this is an opportunity.
VOA: What do you mean, “this situation”?
Vasylenko: I mean, it’s a given situation. Because, you know, their integration into the European Union, and the trade agreement with the European Union, it took us years to proceed with it, and we were very, like, step by step integration with different types of quotas for different types of trade commodities, even in terms of food production. Yes, it’s for the grain, for oil, for poultry. For example, two years ago, we started this quarter to increase it for, for Ukrainian poultry.
VOA: That was a big issue, right?
Vasylenko: It was a big issue, but we made it. And I think that both partners benefited from it. If we take a look at Ukrainian production in terms of European legislation and in terms of European expectation, even in terms of the European Green Deal, our production is already much, much more sustainable than European because we are not using so many different types of plant protection for our crops.
Ukraine is a transit country. It’s always been a transit country. And this is the moment when we can really use all these transport corridors, and Europe can really see how Ukraine can add value to the trades and to different types of economies.
Food system production is very complex. It’s logistics. It’s production, produce and manufacturing, growing, harvesting, planting, everything. And it’s really important for communities, for the environment.
VOA: When we are talking about storing the grain and maybe helping to demine the fields and give more technical support, my understanding is that the Russians are stealing a lot of equipment from Ukraine. What are your expectations, and what is the relationship you have right now with the world’s biggest companies that provide equipment for agriculture?
Vasylenko: Well, I would say in terms of demining, the problem is really huge. And we are working on the demining problem on different levels with our international organizations and with the government on a bilateral level. And EU and NATO countries, they are already providing help. They are sending teams for demining. And I think this process already started, and it will unfold very rapidly.
You’re absolutely right, a lot of our equipment was stolen, and things for information technology. We can identify where it is and, if we can, switch it off.
Private foundations — for example, Howard G. Buffett Foundation — really are focused on food security and resolving military conflict. They are working hard to provide us with different types of equipment for planting and harvesting — for combines, for tractors, for drilling machines. So we can use it, and we can help.
I’m not talking about the big companies in Ukraine; I’m talking about small and medium farmers who have around 150 to 300 hectares. They can really benefit from all the stuff that can be provided by private donors or by private companies.
VOA: One more issue you’re working on is humanitarian work for Ukraine, coordination. How is it going? What exactly does Ukraine need?
Vasylenko: We established a working mechanism of communication and coordination between the Ukrainian government and our partners on multilateral and bilateral levels, of course. We established effective logistics to the Ukrainian border and within Ukrainian borders. On a weekly basis, we are providing our partners with updates on what Ukraine needs in terms of general needs for civilians and specific needs.
Each government party provides us with a list of needs. We clarify it with them and then provide it as a request for our partner countries through different types of mechanisms — for example, the civil protection mechanism, which works within the EU’s borders and through EADRCC (Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre). It’s a NATO mechanism. They provide more specific help.
In terms of priorities and in terms of help, I would like to divide it into two groups. I mean, like goods, it can be medicine, equipment — generators, etc. — and services. In terms of goods, we, on a very constant and a systematic basis, are providing our needs. We provide an exact consignee who receives these needs, so we can definitely deliver tracking information for our partners when they request it. So we are working hard to make this process more transparent.
Already we have several logistic hubs in the cross-border countries — Slovakia, Romania and Poland, of course. Poland is the biggest one. Where they are, all the operations are performed by the government of the cross-border country, which is really effective, and we can easily make customs clearance, we can sort everything. For example, in Romania, we already established a mechanism, thanks to our Israeli and American partners, with QR codes, so you can track where a pallet is going. It’s good information for our partners so they can see that the assistance is really delivered to those in need. So we are working really hard to make the system effective.
Nobody expected war in the center of Europe in the 21st century, and this is a huge crisis for all institutions. Even for U.N. system institutions, this is a huge crisis. And we can see how they are struggling with the bureaucracy, but struggling to help us. Ukraine is absolutely different from where they have worked before.
Ukraine is a developed country. We have an operating government, we have established logistics within our borders so we can deliver goods by ourselves, and we can work as an equal partners. And I would say that on the 17th day of war, we already reached this point where they understood the situation, and they are willing and they are collaborating.
VOA: Are you getting what you need?
Vasylenko: Definitely, in different volumes, we’re receiving different types of goods. Yes, we have certain problems with the clearing of proposals of the donor countries, but we are trying hard with this communication process to deliver accurate information about our needs and to help them clear those proposals for help.
But we need more because the war, unfortunately, is continuing, and we still have a lot of problems with food for civilians, with medicine. As the summer is approaching, we also need to start working, and we already started to, again, for the water purification systems and water purification tools, because we need to provide fresh water, clean water to our citizens so we can avoid this communicable disease spread.
VOA: The United States government is sending additional money to help Ukraine. A lot of that money will go through USAID (United States Agency for International Development). How is your relationship with American humanitarian assistance and U.N. humanitarian assistance? Are you getting what you need?
Vasylenko: Well, we are in close collaboration with USAID. We have a constant conversation on what is needed and how it can be provided. They are providing us with different types of services.
I think that this support can be and could be and should be increased because the humanitarian catastrophe that we already experienced will be much bigger. Because this is not only about how they can help during the war. We also need to think how they can help postwar. And this is something that we need to start building like already.
In terms of U.N., yes, I see that they started the process of providing what is needed, and they started this communication and consultation with the Ukrainian government to be more precise about the help that they providing. For example, WFP (World Food Program).
VOA: Are you saying it’s on the developing level?
Vasylenko: I would say it’s on a development level because they were not prepared for the Ukrainian war. This is a huge difference from all of the conflicts that they were involved in before. And they really needed to adjust. And because it’s a huge system, very bureaucratic, it really took time, but they started coping with this problem.
And WFP also now started delivering bigger amounts of help for those people in need. They are focusing on the south and southeast regions, and they are trying to reach those regions, and they are succeeding. And this is a huge help because under the flag of the U.N., it’s much easier to provide humanitarian assistance for those in need in the occupied territories.
And this is something that we need. We need to show the people of Ukraine that the government of Ukraine is working hard to help them and support them, and that they cannot be victims to Russian propaganda and cannot be used by Russian troops as a living shield.
So for us this is the highest priority: that the people of Ukraine will understand that the government is caring and trying to find solutions to help and support and advocate.
I really appreciate the work of U.N. agencies on establishing humanitarian corridors. We can see the recent success, and hopefully it will be a very sustainable process. And we definitely hope that we can provide help, together with them, to our civilians who are stuck in occupied cities.
VOA: In terms of corridors and delivering goods, do you see enough workers on the ground? I heard a lot of concerns about the security situation, obviously, and maybe there is a way to hire Ukrainians to work for those agencies, maybe. What kind of cooperation are you looking for to better assist each other?
Vasylenko: I think that you are absolutely right. We need to increase the number of people on the ground, and international agencies need to work with local people because local people know better. This is something that we are thinking not only in terms of the people on the ground, for minor work, like sorting and delivering goods. But this is something that we’re thinking in terms of the greater scale. We’re thinking that we definitely need to use resources of U.N. to train Ukrainian people so they can run the process and build the processes because Ukrainians know their country better and they can adjust accordingly.
But using the high standards of training of U.N. personnel and NATO will be a great benefit for U.N. and for Ukraine, because if we have high-profile employees trained accordingly to those high standards, and they can deliver, I will say it will be a huge success. Not only for something specialized, like demining training and training for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) helpers, but also something high-profile: managers that can really manage the situation.
VOA: This crisis will not be over soon, and the war is ongoing. The Russians have started bombarding delivery facilities and train railway stations and so on — logistics hubs. How long do you think the international community should be ready to help? And should they be ready for the long run?
Vasylenko: Well, definitely they should be prepared for the long run. So this is a marathon.
I would say it’s an ultramarathon for all of us. We cannot predict how the enemy will behave. We cannot predict what they will do. But what we definitely can predict is that Ukraine will win, and Ukraine is standing for all the democratic values of the world, and the world should be ready to run this marathon for Ukraine. And this is not only about humanitarian assistance. And this is not only about a humanitarian catastrophe. This is also — we are a huge economy.
We are an integrated part of the world economy. And if we are suffering, the world will also feel the implication of this suffering.
Yes, the world needs to think, as I said before, in terms of humanitarian assistance. This is not only about delivering the goods but also about helping the people of Ukraine regain what was lost. And this is something that we need to think not only in terms of mental health support, because all people are under a huge stress.
We need to think about how to help Ukrainians start small businesses and microbusinesses so they can support the economy, how to train them, how to encourage them. The small and micro entrepreneurs are a backbone of the big economy. Small entrepreneurs can provide help for their local communities, and we need to help them to source it and to establish their small and micro enterprises. And this is something that the world can help with.
A lot of countries that were working before with Ukraine — Sweden, U.K., Canada —were focusing on the support of small entrepreneurs.
A project of Canada, supported by SURGe Victory Gardens, is working with small local communities to provide them with vegetables and berries so they can eat something that they’ve grown on their land. And they can serve it and share it with the community and then hire people who lost their jobs.
And this is not only about the money. This is also about gaining dignity because you can provide for yourself. You’re feeling like an established person. Because a lot, a lot, a lot of people lost their homes. They lost everything. They lost families; they lost businesses. Some lost not only a family business, but they left their homes barefoot. And this is something that can help them regain dignity.
VOA: Thank you.