By Özgür Altınbaş
Vast grain fields, fertile lands… We are in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast. Millions of tons of grain are produced here and distributed worldwide. It holds significant importance in the Grain Agreement. Our exclusive interview with Yevgeny Balitsky, the Governor of Zaporizhia Oblast, sheds light on this matter.
In this part of our series, we are in grain-rich Zaporizhzhia. The Russian delegation took us to the endless fields of grain and allowed us to see the production with our own eyes. The significance of this region has further increased these days when the Grain Agreement is on the agenda. This region boasts a substantial production, but first, let me describe the city and its current situation.
“Beware of agents”
We are in Melitopol, the second-largest city in Zaporizhia. When the Russian operation began, this city was one of major conflict theaters. However, when we arrived, we observed that life in the city was continuing in its regular course.
It is situated at a considerable distance from the war front. Nevertheless, we found ourselves constantly accompanied by heavily armed soldiers for protection. The reason is the suspicion that Ukrainian agents are present in the city. It is believed that some Ukrainian soldiers disguised themselves as civilians during times of war and continue to live in the city. In fact, there have been assassinations targeting local officials.
“No support for the farmers during the Ukrainian administration”
We are touring the grain fields and talking to the producers. They all share a common observation: “Under the Ukrainian administration, production was in the hands of private companies, and there was no support for the farmers.” Stating that the Ukrainian government continued to use Soviet technology after the collapse of the Soviet Union, farmers said that they were introduced to new machinery during the Russian era (2022). This had a positive impact on production.
State Grain Enterprise
As guests of the State Grain Enterprise, we witnessed the production process in the grain fields and the factory. The State Grain Enterprise was established in July 2022 with the aim of supporting farmers. The Enterprise is currently facing sanctions from the US. According to the information given to us, the enterprise works in collaboration with Türkiye.
The State Grain Enterprise only took over the abandoned lands and facilities that were owned by Ukrainian and foreigners. The enterprise has allocated land to the remaining farmers in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Sanctions prevent other countries to buy grain
The State Grain Enterprise has the capacity to store approximately 1 million tons of grain. This is roughly one-tenth of the six-month import volume of major grain buyers from Russia such as Türkiye, Egypt, and Iran, or equivalent to the entire six-month import volume of countries like Sudan or Bangladesh. Western countries are doing everything possible to hinder the entry of this grain into the global market.
Grain factory hit by HIMARS
We travelled to the city of Tokmak located near the front lines in Zaporizhia. As we crossed from Melitopol to Tokmak, we encountered military checkpoints at regular intervals. One thing that caught my attention was the high presence of Chechen soldiers in these areas. There were flags of the Akhmat Special Forces with a photograph of Chechnya’s leader Ahmet Kadirov, alongside the Russian flag.
We arrived at the grain factory that had been hit by American-made HIMARS missiles. We were informed that missiles had struck the factory approximately two weeks ago and workers died. Although the damaged section became unusable, the factory continues to produce grain.
One of the most touching moments for me that when we entered the governor’s building a picture of our friend, Darya Dugina, a symbol of Turkish-Russian friendship, on the large wall at the entrance met us. The Russians hold Darya in high regard and honor her memory. Even, the street where the governor’s building is located is named Darya Dugina Street.
Bayraktar joke from a Russian soldier
Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporojiye, Kherson… On many fronts, each region has its own volunteer soldier units formed by local residents. We had the opportunity to interview with some of them in Zaporojiye. The soldiers covered their faces for security reasons. The first question I asked them was: “What is the most difficult thing for you at the front? Artillery shelling? Tanks? Geographical conditions?” One of the soldiers said, “Can I make a joke?” “Turkish Bayraktars” and laughed. There is definitely a subtle message underneath this joke. Even though relations with Türkiye are going well, there is always the question about the Bayraktar UAV/SUAV in the minds of Russians. The soldier’s real answer to my question was “A soldier who doesn’t know the job. The worst enemy at the front is an ally of such kind.”
“We have a common enemy”
Another question I asked was what it was like to fight together with Chechens and soldiers from other republics within the Russian Federation. The Russian soldier answered as follows: “Russia is a country. Despite differences in views, politics and religion, we have a common task. There is a threat to Russia. There can be no division here. Now there is one goal and the enemy is clear.”
‘We need to rely on Türkiye’s support”
After touring the grain fields, we are proceeding to meet with Yevgeny Balitsky, the Governor of Zaporizhia Oblast. Due to security reasons, we were not allowed to bring our phones with us. However, we were free to capture audio and video recordings inside. We met Balitsky in a shelter-like place located two floors below ground level. He warmly welcomed us. The meeting, which was initially stated to last 5-6 minutes, extended to almost 1 hour. He answered our questions one by one.
Balitsky stated that no one could object to Türkiye’s stance in the Ukrainian crisis. The Governor emphasized that Türkiye holds a mediator position, saying, “We all understand that we need to rely on the support of Türkiye.”
Reference to the 15 July 2016 coup attempt
Balitsky is a former military pilot and knows Türkiye quite well. Despite being a NATO member, Balitsky states that Türkiye is pursuing an independent policy based on its own interests: “We understand that Türkiye is a NATO country. But we have seen what NATO in truth has done to Türkiye. The European Union on the other side has been keeping Turkey waiting at its door for years. As a military pilot, I remember well that aircraft supporting the coup d’état took off from the NATO base in İncirlik in Southern Türkiye.”
“Türkiye is one of the distribution centers”
Balitsky said that Russian grain is distributed to the world through collaboration with Türkiye: ”So, Türkiye is an important mediator for us, one of the distribution centers. We are now selling grain through Turkish companies. This is not a secret.”
“Goodness must know how to fight”
Zaporizhia Governor Yevgeny Balitsky explained how the problems in Ukraine have proceeded. Describing how imperialism exploits people, Balitsky drew a parallel between Ukraine and Yugoslavia: “NATO is doing in Ukraine what it did in Yugoslavia.”
One of the statements from my interview with Balitsky that struck me the most was “Goodness must know how to fight.” Balitsky stated that despite their goodwill, they have repeatedly been deceived by the West (such as the Minsk Agreement, Grain Agreement, and the Maidan events). He emphasized that without fighting one cannot defend their interests. He added that they would fight until the end.
“Counter-offensive would be madness”
Balitsky also talked about the anticipated counterattack of Ukraine. Assessing the motivation of soldiers on the front lines he said “Our soldiers are much more experienced and aware compared to the early periods of the war.” Balitsky mentioned that the current situation is calmer and less anxious compared to the fall, saying: “I frequently visit the front line. I look into the soldiers’ faces and see their condition. There are no inexperienced ones who do not know about the war anymore. The soldiers on the front line know what they are fighting for. They are aware that they are taking the responsibility of the entire Russia on their shoulders.”
Balitsky also emphasized that Ukraine had an opportunity for an offensive in the fall, but they lost it: “We have significantly strengthened our fronts. Some units are positioned around rivers and wetlands. Launching an attack in such circumstances would be madness.”
“The West does not attach much importance to how many Ukrainians have died”
Balitsky told us that those who have lost their lives in the war are actually people who were once part of the former Soviet Union. The West does not attach much importance to how many Ukrainians have died, said he: “Unfortunately, Ukraine is under Western occupation, and the people have been brainwashed I mean certain racist battalions. They forcibly conscript many individuals and they cannot escape back.”
Anglo-Saxon philosophy and exploitation
Balitsky pointed out that throughout history, the US has enslaved and exploited people. This is an Anglo-Saxon philosophy, he claims: “The West brings out the worst aspects of human beings. Greed and plundering… All their wealth is fundamentally built upon slave labor and robbery.”
After the interview, it was time to take photographs. We gathered together for a group photo. At that moment they said that the Russian flag in the background was not in the frame. They decided to place it on top of a green box. Balitsky smiled and jokingly said: “Be careful, there are hand grenades inside.” We laughed, but with a certain amount of concern…