Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has devastated the country’s food supply. But with extraordinary ingenuity and incredible resolve, plus targeted aid, it’s still functioning

After Russian troops stormed the Ukrainian city of Bucha, three friends – Anastasiya Yalanska, Serhiy Ustymenko, and Maxym Kuzmenko – travelled the short distance from Kyiv to help distribute food to local residents cut off from the outside world. 

They had begun volunteering a week or so earlier when Vladimir Putin first ordered his ‘special military operation’ into Ukraine, travelling to nearby towns to help their fellow countrymen in desperate need of help. 

“We helped a kindergarten in Brovary where about 40 children were left without food and items such as diapers and napkins,” Yalanska wrote on Telegram at the time. “We took a batch of aid to a military hospital; [and] we bought food for volunteer dogs that were left without the right food.” 

The friends knew that transporting food was a major risk. “The bigger the hot spot you are heading to, the more you will be dissuaded at checkpoints,” Yalanska wrote on 2 March, in what would turn out to be one of her final messages. “But when they see determination in your eyes, they will wish strength, thank you, and ask you to be careful.”

Two days later, Yalanska, Kuzmenko and Ustymenko were killed when a missile strike from a nearby Russian tank slammed into their car. It is unclear whether the strike that day was a deliberate attack, but Russian troops had by that time grown indiscriminate in their missile targets. Airstrikes regularly blew apart residential buildings, offices, and essential infrastructure, in what Ukrainian officials claim was a policy designed to terrorise the population into defeat. 

“They were killed for nothing,” says Vlad Kytaigorodskii, a friend of the trio and a director at Ukraine’s largest poultry producer, MHP, speaking eight months later on a video call from the western city of Lviv. “They were just giving out food, animal feed and necessities for toddlers and little children. Now they’re dead.”

Three friends killed in Bucha

Anastasiya Yalanska (l), Serhiy Ustymenko (second from right), and Maxym Kuzmenko (r) not long before they died

For the past nine months, newspaper front pages around the world have documented the impact of the Ukrainian war on global food supplies. A combination of blockaded Black Sea ports, mined farmland, and the destruction of one in six grain stores by Russian bombing, according to The Conflict Observatory in September, has all contributed to the worst food security crisis since the 2008 financial meltdown.

But inside Ukraine itself, the fight to keep the country’s 43 million people fed rages on. If a country cannot eat, it cannot survive. A fact all too present in the minds of the Ukrainian people, who have suffered extensive and severe strikes on supermarkets and food and drink factories. The regularity of attacks on the food chain have led Ukrainian and European officials to accuse Russia of weaponising food as a tactic of war, with EU Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski claiming Russia wanted “to create hunger and use this as a method of aggression”.

Today, there are effectively two Ukraines when it comes to food. In Russian-held areas, the mass closure of stores and factories mean many residents are unable to find basic necessities and are left widely reliant on aid. By contrast, in Ukrainian-held regions, following immense disruption in the initial months of the war, supply chains have adapted to the extent that most food supplies are readily available.

“Most of the drivers risked their life every day for months to bring those goods”

Vlad Kytaigorodskii,  director at MHP

That doesn’t mean there aren’t supply obstacles. Logistics, for example, continues to hamper many organisations. Huge tracks of infrastructure have been destroyed by Russian bombing including 6,300km of railway lines and 41 railway bridges in damage that will take several years to repair, Oleksandr Kamyshin, CEO of Ukrainian Railways, said last month.

Roads too are in disrepair with 23,000km of tarmac destroyed, the equivalent of 14% of the country’s entire network, according to the State Road Agency of Ukraine. All in all, the damage to Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure is now estimated to total over $31bn, according to researchers at the Kyiv School of Economics.

“The biggest challenge has been logistics,” says Mykola Melnyk, CEO of SantaVita, Ukraine’s biggest trader of dried fruit. “From Kyiv to Dnipro [a journey of 465km] there were 67 checkpoints with necessity to stop, provide documents for the cargo, and pass all the inspections. It greatly affected us.” 



“Put simply, this winter will be about survival”

Dodging bullets

For some drivers, checkpoints were just the beginning. Through the spring, lorries regularly returned to depots peppered with bullet holes having run an unbridled gauntlet of danger. “Most of the drivers risked their life every day for months to bring those goods to little cities where people were waiting,” says Kytaigorodskii. 

Fortunately, it was not long before a better option emerged. After learning that Russian troops were using decades-old maps to plan their attacks, drivers began working with local residents to find alternative ways to bring food and water into towns and cities. For what the Russians didn’t know, explains Kytaigorodskii, is that most of the people in Ukraine have “secret paths” that are not mentioned on the main maps, in many cases running out of sight through forests or alongside fields. 

“Where it’s very dangerous to deliver food on the main road because you have soldiers and you can be trapped and killed, they’d use these secret roads or trails. So just knowing some local people helped a lot with the deliveries,” he says. “We were like partisans.”

The secret paths proved invaluable but were just one of many adjustments taken to keep Ukraine fed. The closure of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, for example, means food arriving by sea must now find other routes in, with importers often turning to Poland’s Baltic seaports before bringing it in on road via the western border.

The destruction caused by Russian strikes is not just limited to roads and rail, of course. Heavy attacks on industrialised areas mean almost two in three companies have suffered losses over $1m, according to a survey by the European Business Association. 

Some of the most intense shelling has hit Kyiv, forcing businesses such as Snak Trade, a Ukrainian biscuit producer, to relocate its factory, find new suppliers, and train new employees. “The most difficult thing was to find a space that would meet the requirements of food production without huge investments in repairs,” says director Taya Grygorieva.


A damaged supermarket in Nikopol after air strikes by Russian forces in August

And it’s not just Ukrainian businesses affected. A Mondelez Oreo factory in Trostyanets burnt to the ground in April, while its crisp factory near Kyiv was closed until June due to serious damage. And AB InBev ceased beer production at its three Ukrainian breweries in Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, while a Donetsk brewery joint-owned with Efes was seized by Ukrainian separatists. “I’ve lost many ex-colleagues since this started,” adds ex-CEO & president of Central & Eastern Europe Stuart MacFarlane. “It’s so sad and so tragic.”

Supermarkets too have fallen into the crosshairs of Russian forces, with all the major chains, from the Ukrainian owned ATB-Market and Silpo through to international chains like Spar, suffering damage. “This is not an isolated incident,” said Michael Horowitz, head of intel at security and risk management consultants Le Beck International, after an attack on a shopping centre. “Russia is systematically destroying food depots [and] grocery shops.” 

Fozzy Group, the largest supermarket chain in Ukraine, lost over 60 of its 700 stores. Dmytry Tsygankov, Fozzy’s director of product development, summarises the retailer’s position during the early months of the war. “Supermarkets were closed, some due to the danger to our staff and guests. Supply chains were ruined. Warehouses were blocked or bombed. So even in those supermarkets that still worked, we couldn’t get stuff in.” 

The pressure only grew as queues built outside stores, people desperate to stock up on essential goods for fear of future shortages. Across the country, people reported having no access to fruit, vegetables, bread and other basic supplies. Many pet shops also ran out of food. 

“Russia is systematically destroying food depots and grocery shops”

Michael Horowitz, head of intel at Le Beck International

At that stage, all of Ukraine was shaking, with many food producers and manufacturers shutting down completely either due to their facilities being destroyed or, like Snak Trade, simply due to the danger such attacks posed. As a result, Fozzy’s stores, which include Silpo supermarkets and Fora convenience stores, lost around a third of its 2,000 food and drink suppliers, Tsygankov estimates, a major toll on a supermarket that sources about 80% of its products domestically. 

While Silpo has found 500 new Ukrainian suppliers during the war that managed to continue production, it has often been forced to look abroad to make up for the shortfalls in domestic supply. 

”Imports are more stable and, apart from some difficulties at the border, are a good back-up,” says Tsygankov. “If anything goes wrong with the local supplies, we can change it to imports. But of course, the locals are cheaper because the logistics are simpler.”

Some Ukrainian manufacturers have benefited by picking up new business. Others, however, are furious at the lengths some retailers have gone to to keep their shelves stocked. “Some of the retailers have no principles on the presence of goods produced by the aggressor country,” says Andriy Zadvornyak, commercial director at Wiener Kaffee, one of Ukraine’s largest coffee producers. “For some reason, they still prefer imports rather than supporting the domestic manufacturer.”

The good news is that empty shelves in Ukrainian-held regions are a rarity these days, with supply chains strong enough to ensure bananas, lemons and fresh meats are even available in the recently liberated city of Kherson. The bigger issue is unemployment. With the country’s unemployment rate now at 34%, according to the National Bank of Ukraine, many are struggling to afford food even when it is available. 

Ukraine map


“People don’t have money because there’s whole industries that have closed,” says Malachy O’Connor, a partner at retail consultants IPLC, who has worked with Ukrainian companies. 

The Ukrainian government is making “considerable efforts” to keep up its benefits payments through digital technologies, according to the UN’s International Labour Organization, but with huge sums going to the army, social expenses are under pressure. 

As a result, aid organisations are having to step in, with the International Rescue Committee, for example, distributing money to vulnerable people, typically as three-monthly payments of about $70. Similarly, the UN’s World Food Programme, the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, has distributed $370m in cash to more than two million people across Ukraine. 

But rising food prices are exacerbating the problem. Inflation hit 36% in October compared with the same month the year before, the highest reading since January 2016, mainly driven by skyrocketing prices of eggs (81%), vegetables (79%) and fruits (63%), according to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine.

In Russian-held cities such as Mariupol and Donetsk, the situation is more severe. With nearly all Ukrainian supermarkets closed, residents can only shop at Russian retailers, selling Russian products. And that’s assuming they have Russian rubles. In any case, it didn’t matter what the Russian supermarkets stocked, for many they wouldn’t shop there regardless. “Out of principle, I didn’t carry any rubles and never bought Russian goods,” Kherson resident Nataliia Tsvihun told Reuters last month.

Inflation is also rife, with some Ukrainians reporting on social media that a 1.5-litre bottle of drinking water that used to cost 15 Ukrainian hryvnia is now upwards of 50 hryvnia.

So when Kherson was finally liberated last month, queues gathered outside an ATB store decked in Ukrainian flags and blue and yellow balloons, awaiting the moment they could shop in a Ukrainian supermarket for the first time in almost nine months. For many locals, it had been nine months without their favourite Ukrainian foods like pickled gherkins or dumplings, as well as popular international brands like Coca-Cola. 

Antoine Vallas, head of communications for the World Food Programme in Ukraine, says that when the aid group went into Kherson for the first time last month, “we found empty supermarket shelves and communities in desperate need of nutritious food, water and other essentials, having not received humanitarian assistance for months”.

A major factor has been the disruption to supply chains caused by suppliers and transporters suspending operations due to the security risks. Initially, says Vallas, this made it difficult for the aid charities to buy enough food locally, but now with the frontline more stable it has become easier to work with local bakeries and other domestic suppliers. 

Aid is in high demand. The war in these regions has ravaged much of the local economy, leaving around 18 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN’s World Food Programme. In some regions almost half the people are without enough food. And with winter setting in, the situation could be set to deteriorate further. Temperatures usually drop to –20°C in much of Ukraine, meaning many families will have to spend more on heating and buying clothes. Aid groups fear this will reduce their ability to afford food.


Communal workers clean up the rubble of a supermarket partially destroyed by a missile attack in Kharkiv

Water and malnutrition

For some, however, money is only half the problem. The UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization said in July that “shortages of infant formula and clean water are likely contributing to increases in acute malnutrition in the worst-affected areas”. Indeed, the destruction of water infrastructure in cities like Mariupol “has placed the entire urban population at risk of cholera and other water-borne communicable diseases”, the organisation said.

Again, the situation on water is far from accidental. Much like in Syria, Russia is accused of targeting the water infrastructure like pipes and pumping stations, while also blockading water supplies for local populations in cities such as Mariupol, which was under siege before finally falling to Russian troops in May. During the siege, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, and commissioner for the environment, Virginijus Sinkevicius, accused Russia of “using the threat of dehydration to force the surrender of their city”. 

But the threat to water supplies is not just in occupied regions. In October, 80% of Kyiv’s residents were left without water after Russian missiles hit plants and dams, according to Vitali Klitschko, the city’s mayor. While supply of clean drinking water was restored last week, it is still not at full capacity. 

Most supermarkets still have bottled water but for those who can’t afford it, queues often build up as residents wait to fill bottles from water tankers. AB InBev has also repurposed its patched-up breweries, where possible, to provide water (while also shipping in supply from other breweries in cans).

Aid charities across Ukraine are battling with the scale and complexity of the logistics needed to transport and distribute food and water to the many hundreds of small cities around the country. Of the 18 million people in need of aid, the World Food Programme estimates it reached 2.8 million in September, though it hopes this will soon scale up to 4.7 million per month.

“Out of principle I didn’t carry any rubles and never bought Russian goods”

Nataliia Tsvihu, Kherson resident 

In some cases, they have turned to those with established logistics networks already in place, typically food companies. Silpo, for example, created a new depot in Poland to receive donations, using its logistics network and store estate to distribute aid to the Ukrainian people. 

“It’s a huge logistics story,” says Tsygankov when asked about the difficulties inhibiting aid. “You have lots and lots of small towns so how to distribute it, how to transport it, it’s not easy.” 

In regions that aid charities struggle to reach, Silpo has distributed their certificates which can be cashed in for food at its stores. “We have the logistics. They know people who they want to give aid to. 

So that’s another way of operating the aid,” Tsygankov adds.


‘It’s terrifying’

As much as Ukraine has adapted, the situation on food supply is set to get even harder, with Russia’s systematic bombardment of Ukraine’s Soviet-era power system meaning civilians are facing the prospect this winter of life without electricity, heat or running water.

“Put simply, this winter will be about survival”, said Hans Henri P Kluge, regional director for the World Health Organization, at a press conference last week, adding the coming months could be “life-threatening for millions of Ukrainians”. 

Half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is either damaged or destroyed, with 10 million people now without power.

For the country’s food supply, it is perhaps the greatest test to date. “It’s very hard [for Russia] to take out the supply of food into supermarkets. But the threat to energy is terrifying,” says Tsygankov, not long before his wi-fi drops in the latest power outage. 

Without electricity, fresh food can no longer be transported. Water can no longer be pumped. Millions of Ukrainians cannot cook. While local authorities have set up “invincibility centres”, where people can warm up and get hot drinks, at one such centre in Kyiv last week, “more than 60 children are waiting for food and we cannot prepare anything unless the power gets fixed,” a woman told Reuters last week.

Food businesses are racing to do everything they can to keep their operations moving. Silpo has adjusted its logistics chain so fresh food is now transported to stores more frequently and time spent in warehouses is minimised. It has also turned off all electric signs and non-essential fridges (beer can no longer be bought chilled), while turning to diesel generators to keep the ones that are still running cold. The retailer is also planning for a worst-case scenario in which stores must run entirely on these generators, which Tsygankov concedes would be “very, very hard”. 

It is the latest stage in what has been a relentless nine months keeping the country fed, and there is little respite for those on this alternative frontline. “People call it challenging. I think of it as swimming against the current in sulphuric acid,” Tsygankov chuckles. His spirit, like all of Ukraine’s, seems indomitable. “It’s fine. We’re operating, we’re in business. We’re just going to keep going.”