About a month after Russian troops invaded and annexed Crimea, the US government is offering economic support to Ukraine to help stabilize the country during the crisis. Congress approved a $1 billion loan to the former Soviet republic yesterday, and over the weekend the US sent 300,000 food rations as aid to the Ukrainian military.
The rations, called MREs for ready-to-eat meals, began rolling into Kiev over the weekend, and before the last of the shipments had even entered the country, enterprising Ukrainians had started selling the food packets on the black market.
Military rations started popping up on e-commerce sites on March 29, spotted by the Russian news site Newsru and reported yesterday by Time. There are MRE listings on Kidstaff.com.ua, an eBay-style auction site, and UNIMA, an online shop that specifically sells packaged food supplies from foreign governments originally "intended as emergency food in disaster areas, refugee camps, etc," the website's about page explains.
На рынке в Киеве уже продают американские сухие пайки.— Валерий Антоненков (@Trojan200) March 30, 2014
(Translation: "On the market in Kiev already selling American rations.")
Officials can't confirm exactly how merchants are getting their hands on the food supplies, but suspect they could be snatched right out of Ukrainian army warehouses before they're distributed throughout military bases, Time reported.
The rations are intended for soldiers, with a warning slapped on the box from the Defense Department that reads: "U.S. Government Property, commercial resale is unlawful.” However, MRE listings on Kidstaff.com include a disclaimer that states (translated), "IN CONNECTION WITH MUCH hype and false information is reported that over supplies AMERICAN SUHPAYA (ready-to-eat meals) We cooperate with the U.S. site."
Why surf the web to buy a military meal substitute? Because they're cheap, for one. A single case, which contains 12 meals, was listed at 140 Ukrainian hryvnia (UAH)—about 12 bucks, or a dollar a meal. The menu includes hot dishes like pasta and soup, as well as staples like coffee, sugar, salt, and toilet paper.
To some extent, it's inevitable; when hundreds of thousands of food rations are shipping into a crisis-laden and financially struggling country, it’s going to be hard to control whose hands they wind up in. It’s also not the first time we’ve seen it.
International food aid for starving citizens in Somalia was regularly stolen and sold, and emergency food rations sent to Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake were also marketed illegally. "In earthquake-shattered Port-au-Prince, street vendors are openly selling rice by the cup from bags stamped with US flags," the Christian Science Monitor reported.
But as foreign aid begins pouring into Ukraine, which is still struggling with government corruption, it raises questions about whether it's possible to guarantee that supplies and money are going to the right place.