A Win-Win Plan for Exporting Ukraine’s Grain through the Black Sea?

July 20, 2022
Photo credit: Elena Larina / Shutterstock.com
One of the consequences of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been global food shortage and increasing food prices.

Due to Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports, including Odessa, nearly 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain are stuck in warehouses and harbors, unable to be exported. This also means that there will not be sufficient storage available when the 2022 harvest comes in later this year. In addition, sanctions on Russia have crippled Russia’s ability to export grain.

With Ukraine and Russia major suppliers of grain and nutrient oils to world markets, this situation has already led to surging food prices, and it could lead to food shortages and malnutrition in developing countries. Protests over food prices have already begun around the world, including in Argentina, Chile, Cyprus, Greece, Guinea, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, Peru, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Tunisia. Not only can Ukraine not export its grain due to the blockade, it also accuses Russia of selling to third countries stolen grain from its occupied territories. For its part, Russia invokes sanctions as the reason for lower exports and higher food prices.

With Ukraine and Russia major suppliers of grain and nutrient oils to world markets, this situation has already led to surging food prices, and it could lead to food shortages and malnutrition in developing countries.

Ukrainian grain is normally transported to their export destination through the Black Sea, a route currently impracticable due to the mining of the port of Odessa, Russia’s blockade, and the insecurity of Ukrainian ships in the sea. In the absence of a solution when it comes to the maritime route, Romania and Poland are being used as alternatives ones. But Poland’s ports are already at maximum capacity and railway transportation faces a shortage of containers, locomotives, and terminals, adding to the difficulty of converting Ukrainian trains from their wide gauge to the narrow European one.

To ease the situation, Romania has reopened a Soviet-era wide-gauge railway from Ukraine to the city of Galati, where trains are embarked on ships to various destinations or on barges to the port of Constanta. With the highest capacity in Eastern Europe, Constanta has handled 2.5 million tons of Ukrainian grain, half of the total the country has exported since the war started. The port has additional capacity that could be used. Yet the challenge of getting the loads from Ukraine to Romanian ports remains.

The only available export routes are roads and railways, and—even if logistical problems on the Ukrainian side were solved—despite Romania’s efforts the amounts of grain reaching Constanta are still lower than the port’s capacity and than those that need to leave Ukraine. Railway transportation capacity could be doubled should the European Commission approve Romania’s request and loan 1,000 train cars and fund the repair of 900 Romanian cars, as well as Poland’s request for containers and locomotives.

Improving alternative routes through Romania and Poland is a medium-term solution that should be further developed.  But in the short term the only viable solution remains transportation through the Black Sea. This requires an agreement between Ukraine and Russia that is not easy to be achieved. Against this backdrop, the United Nations and Türkiye launched talks with the two countries on a plan to secure a corridor in the Black Sea for Ukrainian grain to be exported to world markets. While the specifics of the plan are not public, its contours include opening up the port of Odessa to commercial shipping by establishing a coordination center in Istanbul, demining a section of the sea around Odessa, Russia pledging to not attack the city through this demined area, and third parties providing security guarantees to commercial vessels to and from the port.

In the short term the only viable solution remains transportation through the Black Sea.

If the plan is implemented, this would be a win for all parties concerned. The UN would demonstrate its capacity to find solutions to humanitarian crises during wartime. Ukraine would be able to export its grain, earn revenues, and demonstrate its capacity to provide the world markets even when it is under invasion. Türkiye would demonstrate its capacity to mediate between warring parties and gain prestige. Russia would project benevolence and avoid being perceived as the main culprit for food shortages around the world. Last but not least, global food prices would be contained and famine would be avoided in developing countries.

UN representatives as well as Russian, Turkish, and Ukrainian military officers came together in Istanbul on July 13 to discuss the details of the plan. In a statement he made after the talks, Türkiye’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar, said an agreement would be signed next week when all parties meet again.

However, there are still several issues to be resolved. Odessa’s harbor was mined at the beginning of the Russian attacks against Ukraine. While neither Russia nor Ukraine has acknowledged having planted the mines, these have been instrumental in protecting the city from a naval assault by Russia. Demining a section of the sea around Odessa is technically not a problem as Bulgaria, Romania, and Türkiye have the capacity to undertake this effort. However, once the mines are cleared it would not be easy for Ukraine to replant them, which would expose the city to a Russian naval attack.

Providing security guarantees to the commercial vessels that would use the corridor is not a simple task either. While closing the Turkish straits to Russian and Ukrainian ships based on Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, Ankara has also informally asked non-littoral states not to send warships to the Black Sea. On that basis, only Bulgaria, Romania, and Türkiye are eligible to provide security guarantees to the commercial vessels that would carry grain from Ukraine. However, it is unclear whether these countries would send warships close to the combat zone.

There is also the issue of Russia’s demands for greenlighting the plan. While he was in Tehran on July 20 for trilateral talks between Iran, Russia, and Türkiye, President Vladimir Putin said that “Russia was ready to facilitate Ukrainian grain shipments from ports along the Black Sea, but that he wants Western countries to lift their sanctions against Russian grain exports.”

Given that the plan discussed in Istanbul would be a win for all concerned parties, these difficulties can be overcome. However, this would only solve the immediate aspect of the crisis. This year’s crop remains a problem, with agricultural fields in Ukraine being either bombed or set on fire by Russia, and with Ukrainian farmers who cannot sell their crops threatening to grow crops other than wheat that yield less production, need less storage, and are hence easier to sell.

To alleviate the crisis and prepare for the following years, the European Union should plan and invest in alternative transport infrastructure to those controlled by Russia, alleviate sanctions that affect the export of Russian cereals and fertilizers, as the United States has already done, and start planning for the summer of 2023 now.