The race to free Ukraine's stranded grain

KLAIPEDA, Lithuania – The Baltic Sea port has silos to store lots of grain, railway lines to transport it from Ukraine, where it has bee...


KLAIPEDA, Lithuania – The Baltic Sea port has silos to store lots of grain, railway lines to transport it from Ukraine, where it has been trapped by war, and a deep harbor ready for ships who can take him to Egypt, Yemen and other countries that desperately need food.

“The famine is near, and we have everything needed to provide part of the solution,” said Algis Latakis, general manager of the port of Klaipeda on Lithuania’s Baltic coast, insisting his facility can help the world avoid a food catastrophe by going out. the vast grain mountains now blocked in Ukraine.

But, Mr. Latakis conceded, there is a big problem: Alexander G. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus – who in February let Russian troops pour into Ukraine from his territory. Belarus controls the railway lines offering the most direct, cheapest and fastest route for large volumes of grain from Ukraine to Klaipeda and other Baltic ports.

But that would be tantamount to striking a deal with a brutal leader closely allied with the president. Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, highlighting the painful moral and political decisions now facing Western leaders as they scramble to avert a global food crisis.

Many options are being considered to get much-needed grain out of Ukraine, including sending barges across the Danube, or by truck and rail through ports in Poland and Romania, all of which present considerable challenges. The most difficult would be to reopen the port of Odessa on the Black Sea, currently mined by Ukraine against invasion and blocked by Russia.

Lithuania’s route appears to hold the most promise for getting food quickly to areas like the Middle East and Africa that need it most, though it’s also a long shot.

“It’s a decision for politicians to make, not me,” said Mr. Latakis, director of the port of Klaipeda. “It’s up to them to decide what’s more important.”

The leaders of the European Union and the United States publicly insist that feeding the hungry trumps other concerns. Privately, however, there are intense disputes over how to do so without rewarding either Russia or Belarus, both of which are seeking sanctions relief in return for aid to avert starvation.

Western countries like the United States, as well as Ukraine, oppose the lifting of sanctions imposed on Russia his invasion but did not rule out an agreement with Belarus.

Until the Russian invasion on February 24, Ukraine shipped most of its agricultural products through Odessa and its main port on the Sea of ​​Azov in the now pulverized city of Mariupol.

The war has halted these shipments, leaving around 25 million tonnes of grain, according to the UN estimates, from last year’s harvest stuck in silos and at risk of rotting if not moved quickly. An additional 50 million tonnes should be harvested in the coming months. Grain elevators in Ukraine that weren’t damaged or destroyed by shelling are filling up fast. Soon there will be no more room to store the incoming harvest.

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said severe bottlenecks meant that existing routes through Poland and Romania “can only provide limited relief from the food crisis” given the volumes that need to be moved.

In a written response to questions, he said the best solution would be for Russia to lift its blockade of Odessa or for Western countries to send warships to escort ships carrying grain.

But, Mr Kuleba said, it is “an extremely difficult undertaking, which involves many security risks”.

He declined to comment specifically on the Belarusian option, but said: “We are desperate to export our food as soon as possible. Anything that works.

Warning of an impending “hunger hurricane”, United Nations chief António Guterres sought to broker a deal under which Ukrainian grain would be transported out of the country by ship or train, and in exchange Russia and Belarus would sell fertilizer products on the world market without the threat of sanctions.

For Ukrainian farmers, just days away from planting their second crop of the year, exporting their grain is perhaps the most pressing task in their now perilous profession.

The war has devastated once fertile land and farmers are running out of diesel, most of which came from Russia and Belarus. Some are afraid to plow fields they fear will be mined. Others struggle to fend off Russian forces who seize their crops and tractors.

“Before, it was all about making profits,” said Andrii Holovanych, manager of Zakhidinyi Buh, a farm in western Ukraine near Lviv where workers in body armor and helmets rumble on tractors. “Now I really feel that the work we are doing is making a difference – not just for Ukraine, not just for my own family’s wealth, but for the whole world.”

Russia blames the farmers’ suffering on the West, arguing that it can be easily alleviated by lifting sanctions. That, said Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister, is a no-start unless Russia withdraws its troops from Ukraine and Belarus ends its crackdown.

“Practically and politically this is not a viable option,” he said in an interview in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. “We are dealing with two dictators who are waging war on Ukraine. They are the ones blocking the food,” he added.

This means that Western governments and Ukraine have to try a range of possible problem-ridden solutions. Trials of trains carrying grain from Ukraine through Poland to Lithuania, for example, lasted three weeks due to different track gauges in neighboring countries, requiring cargo to be loaded and unloaded multiple times.

With huge amounts of grain waiting to leave Ukraine, Landsbergis believes the only real solution is to open Odessa and the nearby port of Mykolaiv to commercial shipping.

He said he traveled to London last week to lobby for the dispatch of warships to the Black Sea to open a safe corridor for merchant ships carrying grain from Ukraine. Britain offered verbal support but no ships, he said.

Turkey has offered to use its ships to transport grain from Odessa, which, in addition to causing Ukraine to clear mines from the port, would require an agreement from Russia not to interfere with the ships.

But faced with the daunting challenges of executing such a plan, the best option for getting large quantities of Ukrainian grain to starving people is probably the railway through Belarus to Klaipeda and other Baltic ports in Latvia and Estonia.

This “won’t solve everything, but it would significantly improve the situation,” said Marius Skuodis, Lithuania’s transport minister. But, he warned, it would also “raise serious political and moral issues”.

Chief among them is that Mr Lukashenko wants the European Union to lift sanctions on what had been his biggest source of money: potasha plant nutrient of which his country is one of the largest producers in the world.

Ukraine is opposed to any easing of sanctions on Russia but, increasingly desperate to transport war-trapped grain, is more open to the idea of ​​a temporary easing of sanctions on Belarusian potash.

The White House, when asked if lifting sanctions on Belarusian potash was being discussed, responded with a statement that denounced Russia and ignored the potash issue.

In Ukraine, the Lithuanian option also raises serious doubts.

Roman Slaston, the head of Ukraine’s main agricultural lobby, said one of the challenges was that many rail links across Belarus had been destroyed by Belarusian railway workers who sympathized with the Ukrainian cause.

“Given that the Russian army is still in Belarus, who is going to pay to fix this now?” asked Mr. Slaston. “It’s like some kind of madness.”

Torben Reelfs, the co-owner of Biorena, a farm outside Lviv in western Ukraine, said transporting all the grain trapped in Ukraine by train would require around 400,000 wagons. “If you lined up those cars one behind the other, it would be 7,500 kilometers long,” or about 4,700 miles, he said. “It’s like the distance between New York and São Paulo. It’s impossible.”

Mr Slaston said trucks might be a better opportunity. Its goal is to output 40,000 tonnes per day by truck, which would require around 1,000 vehicles.

But that creates its own problems: with airports and seaports closed, and so many trucks on the road, border crossings have become clogged with miles of traffic.

In the meantime, Ukrainian farmers are taking matters into their own hands, buying silo bags, long plastic sheaths that can store around 5,000 to 6,000 tonnes of grain, said Husak Bohdan, an agronomist at the Biorena farm.

Mr. Holovanych, from the Zakhidinyi Buh farm, said such solutions frustrate him, if necessary. “We don’t grow food to store it,” he said. “Africans will not be fed by our grain which remains in sacks in our fields.”

Andre Higgins reported from Klaipeda, and Erika Solomon from Hlynyany, Ukraine. Matina Stevis-Gridneff contributed reporting from Brussels, Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius, Lithuania, and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.

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