Action by the United States to open up land routes for grain to reach neighboring countries, bring containers into the country, and implement long-term changes aimed at reducing global dependence on Ukrainian grain could have a collective impact on the crisis. But these efforts are seen by many as marginal fixes to a much larger problem that cannot be fully resolved until Russia eases its blockade, particularly Ukraine’s largest port in Odessa, which has been surrounded by Russian warships for months.
“From a practical perspective, the only option is still to try and see how the embargo on Odessa is lifted,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrieleus Landsbergis told CNN on Tuesday. “Every option should be explored and, if possible, every option should be used…but unfortunately, without exploring and moving forward the Odessa option, I don’t think there is any other way.”
“If the Russians won’t allow it, we, as a global community, need to find a solution for how to do it without a Russian agreement,” Landsbergis said.
The United Nations and Turkish officials are preparing for separate rounds of diplomatic talks with Moscow that will coalesce over a new plan to try to open sea routes to Ukrainian grain, sources said.
Meanwhile, millions of tons of grain remain stuck in Ukraine, stored in silos and in the port of Odessa, driving up global food prices that are likely to worsen as the war drags on. Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest exporter of corn and the fifth largest exporter of wheat, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the United Nations Program to Combat Food Insecurity buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year.
A European diplomat said the focus on finding a solution to get millions of tons of grain out by sea, despite the complications, is understandable: It would take an estimated five months by ship versus 18-24 months by rail.
And time is ticking, with the silos currently full and more grain on its way in the fall.
“Somehow it will get worse soon,” the diplomat said. “There is nothing that completely solves the problem.”
US officials have looked for alternative ways to export at least some of Ukraine’s crop, including rail and trucking through western parts of the country and using seaports outside Ukraine. In addition to exploring options for buffer supplies, they are considering steps such as teaching other countries how to use fertilizer more effectively so that they can grow more agricultural produce locally in the long term, administration officials said.
Tackling the Russian embargo militarily would be a complex task — and something that would risk an escalation with Russia that the Biden administration has worked to avoid. US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Tuesday that because the sea lanes “are blocked by mines and the Russian navy, opening them up to allow for exports would be a high-risk military operation that would require significant levels of effort.”
US Ambassador to NATO Julian Smith told reporters on Wednesday that she did not see a role for NATO either.
“I don’t foresee any role for NATO as of today,” Smith said. “We are at a point where we are open to seeing countries interact with Moscow, but what’s discouraging us is that there is no indication that Russia is taking any of this seriously or negotiating in good faith.”
“Given the Russian behavior in these negotiations (throughout the conflict), I think we’re skeptical that at this point, it’s going to lead to some kind of major breakthrough,” she added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday. According to a Kremlin statement, Putin said Moscow would support the export of Ukrainian grain “without hindrances.” Putin also said Russia is ready to “export large quantities of fertilizer and agricultural products” – if Western sanctions are lifted, according to a Kremlin reading.
There is strong opposition to lifting sanctions to facilitate the opening of the ports. It wasn’t just the beginning, Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told CNN this week, a sentiment echoed by US officials.
Landsbergis told CNN that the Russians believe they have leverage by preventing ships from safely crossing the Black Sea and that the world needs to make it clear that this is not the case.
Turkey will likely play an important role in brokering any potential solution to the blockade, as the country controls the routes into and out of the Black Sea.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plans to visit Turkey on June 8 to discuss the establishment of a sea corridor for Ukrainian exports.
The senior Biden administration official says the United States supports any diplomatic efforts with Russia, although the White House doubts talks with Turkey will lead to a breakthrough.
UN officials are hoping for a possible deal and have drawn up a plan to transport the grain from Odessa through the Black Sea, and a UN diplomat said the Turks supported the idea. Martin Griffiths, a British diplomat and UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs, will discuss that plan when he visits Moscow this week.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter on Tuesday that Ukraine is working on a “UN-led international operation with fleets of partners that will ensure a safe trade route without security risks.”
But US and European diplomats said the idea of using the international navy to protect any UN efforts has not yet been developed, and is unlikely to happen yet. Landsbergis noted that any UN effort that requires Security Council approval is liable to fail because of Russia’s membership in the Council.
“I don’t see large NATO navies lining up to do this at the moment,” a European diplomat said. “It seems the idea is not mature enough.”
It will also be difficult to redirect the flow of grain shipments from Ukraine, since the entire infrastructure has been set up to transport grain south to the country’s large ports along the Black Sea, which are currently surrounded by Russian warships.
Any overland routes that US and European officials contemplate for exports should be seen as a “transitional solution,” said Caitlin Welch, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Without much progress in the Black Sea, US officials were touting the possibility that overland routes could help alleviate the grain problem, at least to some extent.
At last week’s Senate hearing, Biden’s nominee to be the next head of the U.S. Command in Europe, General Chris Cavoli, indicated alternative routes for exports include Germany’s national railway and a Romanian port that runs through part of the Black Sea. No blockade of the Russian Navy.
Another administration official said European road routes offer some potential to ease the impasse. “There is wide recognition that this is probably the fastest way to address at least some of the reserve exports,” the official said.
The official noted that the United Nations has updated its export forecast for Ukraine by either one million or half a million tons next month, based solely on work already done with Europeans to expand the railway and truck aspects.
However, land routes are not without their complexities, and according to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, some of them are unlikely to be viable solutions.
The route through Belarus to Lithuania, for example, is not a good option, Landsbergis said, because it would pass through lands ruled by Putin’s ally and old dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who might demand concessions in order to allow the grain to be transported safely. He added that the train route through Poland is not viable due to the different gauges of railways.
Providing Ukraine with temporary storage mechanisms – such as boxes and bags – is also a way to save this year’s harvest in Ukraine because the country’s storage facilities are currently nearing capacity. An administration official said temporary storage could also be used to help move grain to trucks and trains out of the country.
These efforts come as US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken laid out a comprehensive plan last month at the United Nations that the United States is trying to implement that includes steps such as trying to link countries that are major agricultural producers with countries that need these products. Blinken said Wednesday that Russia is risking “what’s left of its reputation” by not letting food out of Ukrainian ports, but he didn’t mention any additional cost the United States was willing to impose on Russia over what he called an “effective blockade.” ”
“It seeks to establish relations with countries around the world, including many countries that are now victims of Russian aggression due to the growing food insecurity resulting from this aggression,” Blinken said at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Long term effects
Concerned about the long-term impact of the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration is also considering how they can motivate American farmers to produce more wheat and other agricultural products that are now in short supply around the world. But these moves will not have the ability to increase production this summer, because the planting season is past.
Officials said the administration is looking to other states as well, including to help teach them how to use fertilizer more effectively to grow more agricultural enterprises. Fertilizers are in short supply globally because Russia has traditionally been a major exporter of soil fortifying crops.
If efforts to teach countries how to use fertilizer more efficiently are successful in countries that depend on Ukrainian wheat imports, it could increase their wheat production.
“There are a number of different types of fertilizers and overuse of fertilizers is a problem,” an administration official said, adding that the administration is considering working with other countries and providing technical assistance. “If you don’t overuse it, you actually get better crops, and you keep the fertilizer.”
No matter what happens, Ukraine’s grain exports are not likely to rebound to pre-war levels any time soon. Welch, a CSIS expert, explained that insurance and freight costs would remain high even if the port bans were lifted, and as long as the war continued, the risk to future crops and the potential for a global food crisis remained.
Still others say the best option is to give Ukraine weapons such as anti-ship weapons to use against the Russian blockade and deter further Russian aggression on Ukraine’s ports.
“The cheapest and most sustainable solution to food security is to arm Ukraine enough to open the Black Sea ports,” said Daria Kalinyuk, a prominent Ukrainian civil society activist.
This story has been updated with comments from a European diplomat.
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