Calls grow for Russia to free Ukrainian ports for grain exports

Russia stepped up its missile attacks on Odessa last week, raising new concerns about the security of the port. (Salwan George/The Washington Post)

Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven countries have called on Russia to free up maritime export routes for Ukrainian grain and agricultural products essential to feeding the world, as food prices rise and the World Food Program warns of “catastrophic” consequences if Ukrainian ports remain blocked.

“You shouldn’t be naïve. Russia has now extended the war against Ukraine to many states as a grain war,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a press conference on Saturday after the G-7 meetings. “It’s not collateral damage, it’s an instrument in a hybrid war aimed at weakening Russia’s anti-war cohesion.”

Baerbock, which hosted the three-day meeting of top diplomats in Weissenhaus, Germany, said the group was looking for alternative routes to transport grain out of Ukraine as the threat of a global hunger crisis looms. intensifies.

Up to 50 million people will face hunger in the coming months unless Ukrainian grain is released, Baerbock said, according to The Associated Press. About 28 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports blocked by Russian forces.

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, some countries have turned to India as an alternative source of grain. But after taking steps to develop its agricultural export industry, India banned wheat exports on Friday, citing its own food security concerns.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has all but captured the port city of Mariupol, where Russian forces have surrounded the last remaining Ukrainian fighters entrenched in the Azovstal steelworks.

Russia also took control of the Kherson region on the Black Sea and fired missiles at the main port city of Odessa, which remains under Ukrainian control. Ukraine closed its ports in late February amid the fighting, and Russian warships and floating mines prevented them from reopening.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that such a shutdown of port operations had probably not been seen in Ukraine since World War II. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday that Ukraine was willing to participate in talks with Russia to unlock grain supplies, but his government had received “no positive reaction” from officials in Moscow, reported the AP.

David Beasley, head of the United Nations World Food Programme, spoke with US lawmakers and Biden administration officials in Washington this week to stress the urgency of reopening ports and addressing the global food crisis .

Ukraine produces enough food to feed 400 million people a year, and 30% of the world’s wheat supply comes from Russia and Ukraine, according to the World Food Programme.

“Ports are critical to global food security,” Beasley told The Washington Post. “It will be catastrophic if we don’t open these ports and move food supplies around the world.”

On an average working day, some 3,000 wagonloads of grain arrive at Ukrainian ports, where they are stored in silos and, in peacetime, shipped across the Black Sea and across the Bosphorus, and then into around the world, Beasley said. With exports blocked, silos are full, meaning there is no room to store grain for the next harvest, which is due in July and August.

The impact of the lockdown will be felt in both rich and poor countries, Beasley said, and it is already affecting market volatility. The war has pushed the prices of wheat, cooking oil and other commodities to record highs, and the US Department of Agriculture has predicted global wheat supplies will fall next year.

Countries in the Middle East and Africa are particularly dependent on Ukrainian grain. Egypt gets between 75 and 85 percent of its wheat supply from Ukraine and Russia, according to UN statistics. More than 60% of the wheat imported by Lebanon comes from Ukraine. Somalia and Benin depend on Russia and Ukraine for all of their imported wheat.

The UN has warned that food insecurity could exacerbate existing conflicts and economic crises in these regions.

The World Food Program’s operational costs to help the same number of people have increased by more than $70 million a month in part because of rising food prices, Beasley said. The programme, which provides food aid to 125 million people every day, will have to cut rations further. In Yemen, which has been experiencing an acute food crisis for years, the program has already halved food rations for 8 million people.

“We’re running out of money, prices are killing us, we’re missing billions and now we have to decide which children eat, which children don’t eat, which children live, which children die. It’s not right,” Beasley said.

The World Food Program, which buys half of its wheat from Ukraine, has asked Congress for $5 billion in additional international food aid. An emergency funding package for Ukraine containing that aid passed the House on Tuesday night, but a vote in the Senate was pushed back until next week.

Russia stepped up its missile attacks on Odessa this week, raising new concerns about the security of the port. In a statement released on Saturday, the G-7 foreign ministers called on Russia to “immediately cease its attacks on key transport infrastructure in Ukraine, including ports”.

Beasley, who visited Odessa this month as the city came under attack, said it was encouraging that Russian attacks had not targeted actual port infrastructure so far.

Russia, also a major grain producer and the world’s largest wheat exporter, has everything to gain from continuing to disrupt Ukrainian exports. G-7 ministers promised on Saturday that sanctions against Russia would “not target essential exports of food and agricultural inputs to developing countries”.

The G-7 is made up of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The countries also pledged to increase their contributions to the World Food Program and other relief organizations.

Ukraine also accused Russia of intentionally attacking Ukrainian grain facilities and stealing grain from occupied regions for export. A State Department spokesperson confirmed to the Post that the Russian attacks damaged at least six grain storage facilities in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Beasley said he was “calling all the friends I know who have influence in Russia” to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow grain shipments from Ukraine to resume.

G-7 ministers said on Saturday they were looking at other options for getting Ukrainian grain to countries in need, including establishing “agricultural solidarity pathways.” The European Commission on Thursday presented a plan to create such transport corridors, which would facilitate overland shipments of Ukrainian grain to Europe.

Trucks and trains can only transport a fraction of the grain that is typically shipped from Ukrainian ports, Beasley said. And Russia continues to attack train lines and transport infrastructure across Ukraine. But Baerbock said on Saturday that “every ton we can get out will help a little to tackle this hunger crisis,” the Financial Times reported.

“In the situation we find ourselves in, every week counts,” Baerbock said.

Victoria Bisset and John Hudson of The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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