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Freeing Ukraine’s Bountiful Food Supply

A person pours a large bucket of grain
Farmers load oat into a seeding machine on a farm east of Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 16, 2022. © Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty

As Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine nears its fifth month, the war is wreaking havoc on Ukraine’s ability to bring its ample stores of grain—wheat, corn, barley, sunflower, coriander, and more—to the global marketplace. In a typical year, Ukraine provides more than half the wheat imported by some Middle Eastern and African countries. Now, with Russia bombing storage facilities and raining missiles down on open fields, farmers are racing to harvest what they can before their livelihoods burn up; wheat exports this June dropped nearly 80 percent year over year, according to the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food of Ukraine.  

The implications stretch far beyond Ukraine. Much of the world was already struggling to provide sustenance, with supply affected by the Russian blockade of Ukraine’s ports, price spikes that hit hard in purchasing countries burdened by crushing debt, climate change–driven drought, and the ravages of COVID-19. Some 250 million people face famine conditions. The continuing conflict could put hundreds of millions more in peril, by some estimates, Ukraine’s grains provide food for up to 400 million people.

Open Society spoke with Hanna Shelest, director of the security studies program at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” think tank, about the impact of the war on the country’s food exports, the deal between the warring parties—negotiated with the United Nations and Turkey—to get the grain flowing, and what’s needed next.

What are the key drivers of Ukraine’s food export challenges in your view?

There are three main issues. In March and April, Russia began bombing silos and fuel storage facilities, making it difficult for farmers to plant. Then, Russian forces began attacking grain storage buildings, and shelling fields full of wheat. The fields are also full of unexploded ordnance, which makes it dangerous to till. With one missile, you can burn hectares and hectares of grain. And what our farmers did manage to harvest, we faced challenges exporting because Russia blocked the ports backed in February and mined the waters later.

Without being able to export through our usual shipping channels, we have transport problems. One ship equals approximately 5,000 trucks, in terms of the amount they can carry. And railways cannot make up the difference, because our track gauge—the distance between the two rails on a train track—is different from those in the surrounding countries. So, trying to find alternatives to sea export, Ukraine faces additional challenges. We need more trucks. We need drivers, with foreign passports and permission to leave the country (men ages18–60 may not leave without government approval). Neighboring states that have agreed to help don’t have terminals with sufficient capacity to take in large amounts of grain. You also have the problem of insurance companies not wanting to insure cargo in a war zone. Neither Ukraine nor our neighbors have the facilities necessary for the long-term storage of grains and the border infrastructure necessary for their export.

What role has Russian disinformation played in all this? 

Russia pushes a false narrative—that the higher prices and supply problems are due to Western sanctions. It’s a weak argument: There are no sanctions against Ukraine grain export. Russia is Ukraine’s biggest competitor in the global food market. They benefit from higher prices and from absence of the competition, as they can both reach new markets and impose political leverage on some countries. Russia sees using this situation as a way to influence relations with countries in the future. Typically, Lebanon and Egypt import up to 40 percent of their grain from Ukraine. Now Russia is offering them grain stolen from Ukraine. They are blackmailing these nations: Would you like to buy stolen goods, or starve? They want to make nations that depended on Ukraine dependent on them. They are politicizing food security. 

Are Western allies doing enough to help? What more is needed?

They are helping as much as they can. The European Union has taken steps to simplify the procedures for trucks and lorries, reduce the red tape, and now some states have also lifted transport quotas restrictions. What’s needed: Don’t compromise with Russia! They think if they allow a corridor for ships out of the blocked ports, the West will ease up on sanctions. They are pushing European capitals on this. Opening the ports is not the same as removing the mines or stopping shelling from the sea, which needs to happen if we are to guarantee commercial vessels safe passage. And opening the ports makes us more vulnerable to attacks from the Russian fleet stationed in the Black Sea. We ask for ammunition to help protect us from those naval assaults.

We also need help in working with African and Middle Eastern countries. Ukraine historically has had a limited diplomatic presence in Africa—only a few embassies. We are not as present as we need to be in the Middle East, especially compared to Russia. Many European countries have good relations in the region. We need more diplomatic support in helping to persuade these nations not to be taken in by Russia’s manipulations.

How do you evaluate the July 22nd agreement between Ukraine and Russia to help get the grain moving? What does it mean for Ukraine?

The deal signed by Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, and the UN looked promising on paper, but the devil, as always, is in details. Less than 24 hours after signing the agreement in Istanbul, Russia violated it by shelling the port of Odesa with Kalibr missiles. These are high-precision missiles, so the Russians knew exactly what they were targeting. After a day of equivocation, the Russian Minister of Defense announced that they targeted military infrastructure in the port (a claim belied by video evidence). Still, the agreement states that “the parties will not undertake any attacks against merchant vessels and other civilian vessels and port facilities engaged in this initiative.” Ukraine, Turkey, and the UN read that to mean no attacks against the ports of Odesa, Yuzhny, and Chornomorsk. Russia decided to interpret it as pertaining to only one of two berths where ships will be loaded.

Authorities in Ukraine would nonetheless like to continue with the deal, as we understand the global need for Ukraine’s grain—and the need for our partners to carry through with the exports. But we should all proceed very carefully, both politically and militarily, as this attack clearly demonstrated that Russia is going to manipulate and misuse the agreement. For them, this was a chance to ease the impact of the West’s sanctions—not a goodwill opportunity to unblock the ports.

Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” is a grantee of the International Renaissance Foundation, a part of the Open Society Foundations.

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