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Farming like a refugee

Shellshocked: As Ukraine-Russian war drags on, the human toll becomes impossible to gauge even as the agricultural losses stack up

Mike Wilson

December 16, 2022

15 Slides
Lady pushing stroller in front of bombed building in Ukraine

DEVASTATING TIMES: War upends every aspect of normal life, but Ukrainians go on as best they can. Many continue to live in bombed out buildings with no running water or electricity because they have nowhere else to live.Howard G. Buffett

The war in Ukraine could fill an ag journalists’ notebook with bleak and deadly statistics: tons of grain stolen, number of farmers dying from driving tractors exploded over mined fields, grain storage bins reduced to rubble from missile attacks. Those lists do exist and yes, they get more depressing with each day.

As miserable as the numbers may be, the real impact doesn’t hit until you talk about the humans suffering from Putin’s attack, and what they’ve been through in just 10 months since Russia invaded.

This will not be a Merry Christmas for the Ukrainian people, especially those brave civilians and soldiers who remained in the country this winter.

American farmer and philanthropist Howard Buffett has worked in some of the poorest, most difficult places on the planet. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation works to improve the standard of living and improve food security and mitigate conflict across Africa, Central and South America, and other regions. Howard understands farming, refugees, and displaced people. But when he got to Ukraine last spring for his first visit during the war, even he was shell shocked.

“There are real differences in Ukraine’s situation compared to what I’m used to seeing,” he told Farm Futures. “I’ve been in 20 different refugee camps, all a result of civil war or rebel activity, not because one country invaded another sovereign country.”

Consider the common house pet. Many of us have one or more, including Ukrainians. So as people leave the country, they are bringing their pets. With shelled homes and buildings, many pets are without a caretaker.

“I have two German shepherds that I love,” says Buffett, who will share his views on Ukraine on stage with broadcaster Max Armstrong at the upcoming Farm Futures Business Summit, Jan. 19-20 at Iowa City, Iowa. “What if I couldn’t feed them? Ukrainians are so close to living like we live – that subconsciously has an impact on you. It hits close to home.”


Buffett believes upwards of 40% of the country’s people are now refugees or IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). For some it will be a cold winter; for as many others it may include hunger, even in one of the world’s great breadbaskets. Based on his experiences, people living in conflict-affected areas can be twice as likely to be malnourished as compared to individuals in other countries.

“I saw people leaving the country, leaving their homes, and having nowhere to go,” he says. “I saw people living in bombed out buildings without heat or electricity because they have nowhere else to go. This winter is going to be tough.”

The Foundation is supporting a war crimes investigator that has been documenting agriculture losses – stolen grain, damage to farms, land mines in fields. At some point, there will be a thorough accounting.

“I don’t know if Ukraine will be able to recover anything, but it will help identify the damage Russia has inflicted,” says Buffett, who is in the business of building wealth, not destroying it.

“Rebuilding Ukraine will be overwhelming,” he reflects. “Think about if your house gets hit by a tornado. You’re standing there shocked, trying to figure out how you will put your life back together. There are millions of people in Ukraine thinking that right now."

“Our foundation has to be engaged, because there are too many people suffering at an amazing scale.”

A history of conflict

Americans, present company included, have had little awareness about the conflict in this region. But this bloody struggle began nearly a century ago in 1928 when the soviets introduced ‘collectivization’ as Joseph Stalin established control. For farmers it meant land would be taken from individuals and put into centrally controlled state-operated farms.

Then, as now, people put up a fight.

In 1932 Stalin ordered the genocide of Russian and Ukrainian Kulaks, which literally translated means “fist.” A Kulak was any peasant who owned over eight acres of land at the end of the Russian empire. During the Russian revolution the word was used to chastise peasants who resisted paying the ‘tax’ in the form of wheat they had grown.

“The Bolsheviks had taken away the people’s guns years earlier, so when they came to collect those taxes in the fall of ’32, no farmer had enough wheat to pay, and they often fought with their fists,” explains Roger Denhart, an Illinois farmer with farm interests in Ukraine.

War of ideals

Many of these farmers were executed, and millions died that winter. Sadly, we’re seeing a repeat of these scenes today, as the war of ideals between Russian autocracy and Ukraine democracy collide. When Russia took Crimea in 2014, nothing happened; maybe it emboldened Putin. Former retired generals said, “Putin misunderstood circumstances when that happened and that’s why we have what we have now.” But make no mistake, Putin will not go away voluntarily. In 2021 Putin published a 5,000-word essay that declared there is no such thing as a Ukraine separate from Russia; that the territory of Ukraine ‘lies on historically Russian lands.’

Few of us fully appreciated all the history between these nations, days and years leading up to the invasion. Only in hindsight can we now understand more clearly why this is happening. The jolting aspects of this war, other than the terrible death and destruction, is the Russian gaslighting that juxtaposes fact and fiction: Putin declared the Ukrainian government a “Nazi regime’ moments before he did exactly what that most famous Nazi of all, Adolph Hitler, did 83 years ago: attack a neighboring country.  

Putin does not see himself as Hitler, but rather, another prominent historic figure: Peter the Great, the Russian 18th century Tsar. “Peter the Great waged the great northern war for 21 years,” Putin said in June at an exhibition dedicated to the Tsar. “It would seem that he was at war with Sweden, he took something from them. He did not take anything from them, he returned (what was Russia’s).”

Peter ruled for 43 years and named a town after himself, St. Petersburg, built on land he conquered from Sweden, according to a story in The Guardian. St. Petersburg happens to be Putin’s home town.

So now you get a better sense of why there is no clear ‘off ramp’ for this war.  Sanctions or no sanctions, Putin has all the time in the world. And as long as the Russian people fall for this deception, no amount of war crimes will matter. Russia’s disinformation machine feeds citizens daily doses of propaganda, and those who dare protest risk imprisonment.

The only logical end to this is if the Russian army collapses, or thousands more Russian soldiers begin coming home in body bags or wheelchairs.

The United States has an obligation to protect Ukraine. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum prohibited the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States from threatening or using military force or economic coercion against Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, "except in self-defense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations." As a result of the agreement, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal – the third largest at the time, inherited from the collapsed Soviet Union. Putin’s decision to invade is in direct violation of the Budapest Memorandum.

“We signed an agreement that if Ukraine would give up nuclear weapons we would protect them and their sovereignty,” Buffett says. “How can we have any credibility on the world stage on nuclear disarmament if we don’t protect the people we gave our word to?”

An aggressive stand

The United States has sent military equipment to support Ukraine. Is it enough?

As long as the war remains in Ukraine and not on Moscow’s doorstep, Putin has little to worry about, even with economic sanctions. Russia is not running out of munitions, especially with help from North Korea and Iran.

You might be inclined to say, ‘It’s none of our business.’ I politely disagree. How many times have we, and our ancestors, paid a price for appeasement? The idea of negotiating with Hitler in Nazi Germany was as preposterous then as it is with Putin today, and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy knows it. “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth,” said British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“If Putin wins, think about how that changes the world power structure, with Iran and North Korea helping Russia on the European continent,” notes Buffett. “With Iran and North Korea already engaged and China sitting by watching, if Putin wins and takes Ukraine, think about what it means to this country on a global scale."

“Long term that is nothing but a negative outcome for the U.S.,” he adds. “We have a lot at stake. What I don’t understand is why we’re giving them just enough weaponry to keep going, but not enough to help them win.”

This is a lot to mull over as the Holidays approach. But I will be saying a prayer for those Ukrainians suffering this Christmas, especially those farmers fighting on the front lines.

We know we’re lucky. We’re isolated. And they deserve our support.

“Many Ukrainian farmers are on the front line and not at home managing the farm,” concludes Buffett. “When it’s all over, I hope most can remain in business.”

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Executive Editor, Farm Futures

Mike Wilson is executive editor and content manager at He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

“At our goal is to get readers the facts and help them analyze complicated issues that impact their day-to-day decision-making,” he says.

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