A plan mediated by Turkey amid a global food crisis to open shipping corridors out of Ukrainian ports has been dealt a blow as officials in Kyiv said it would take six months to clear the coast of Russian and Ukrainian mines.
As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, arrived in Ankara on Tuesday, Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said in a statement that his government was making progress with the UN, Russia and Ukraine on reopening ports under Russian blockade in the Black Sea.
Ships leaving Ukrainian ports would be escorted by Turkish naval vessels under the proposal being discussed.
The development appeared to offer some hope as the UN warned that the war in Ukraine – a world’s fourth biggest exporter of grain – was fuelling serious shortages of food around the world and pushing millions of people into famine.
According to the UN, Russia and Ukraine supply about 40% of the wheat consumed in Africa, where prices have already risen by about 23%.
However, Markiyan Dmytrasevych, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of agrarian policy and food, said on Tuesday that even if Russia lifted its blockade, thousands of mines would remain floating around the port of Odesa, and elsewhere.
Dmytrasevych said that currently Ukraine was able to export a maximum of 2m tonnes of grain a month – compared with the 6m tonnes before the war – and that it would take until the end of the year to clear the mines.
“I think we reached the limit,” Dmytrasevych told participants at an International Grains Council conference. “The biggest amount we can export is about 2m tonnes a month.”
It is estimated that more than 20m tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine’s silos around Odesa due to a blockade of the port by Russian vessels. The country has faced severe capacity constraints when trying to export its grain by road, rail and river through Ukraine’s Danube ports.
Ukraine’s trade representative, Taras Kachka, said the EU needed to build warehouses and extend railway tracks across the Ukrainian border. Ukraine’s railway network has, like Russia’s, a slightly wider gauge, or distance between the two rails of a railway track, than its European neighbours such as Poland. As a result, grain transported by rail has to be unloaded and put on to different trains when it reaches the border.
“We are already using to the maximum the current possibilities for supply and it still very low, that is below 2m tonnes per month. In order to increase it we need to construct additional entry points to the EU, the additional lines [of railway] to cross the border, deeper into both markets,” he told the Guardian.
Kachka said Ukraine was already investing in extra grain storage facilities on its border with Poland, in the northern Volyn region and in the western Lviv region, and working on extending Ukrainian railway tracks into Poland, and vice versa, at several border crossings.
Turkey has offered Ukraine help to de-mine the coastal area but the government in Kyiv has not only warned of the scale of the task but is concerned that it could leave Odesa, among other key ports, open to attack.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy, president of Ukraine, said in an interview with the Financial Times that while he supported the Turkish initiative, he would need assurances that Russian vessels would not be allowed to use the safe corridors.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday that the Kremlin also had its own conditions, as he offered Moscow’s guarded support for the proposed safe corridors. “This will allow ships, once checked by our military to make sure they are not carrying any weapons, to enter the ports, load grain and with our help, proceed to international waters,” he said.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the Russian-occupied ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol had already resumed their operations. “The de-mining of Mariupol’s port has been completed,” Shoigu said during an appearance on Russian television. “It is functioning normally and has received its first cargo ships.”
The Russian claims over the ports at Mariupol and Berdiansk could not be independently verified, and at a UN security council meeting on Monday evening in New York, the European Council president, Charles Michel, accused Russia of using food supplies as “a stealth missile against developing countries”.
Michel said Russian forces had stolen grain from occupied Ukrainian territories “while shifting the blame to others,” calling this behaviour “cowardly” and “propaganda, pure and simple”. His comments prompted the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, to walk out.
Victoria Prentis, the UK’s farming ministers told an International Grains Council (IGC) conference in London on Tuesday that she had heard the allegations of grain theft by Russia, describing them as very serious.
Meanwhile, on a visit to Lithuania, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said his government was ready to increase its military presence in the Baltic region in response to the war in Ukraine. “We have agreed to strengthen the eastern flank of Nato by creating a new strong brigade here,” he said.
Lithuania borders Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave where the Kremlin’s Baltic Sea fleet is based. A brigade is comprised of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers.
Scholz also promised to continue supplies of necessary weapons, and troops’ training to Ukraine. He dismissed claims that Germany was hesitating with supplies of heavy weaponry, including most modern howitzers.
He said: “We have far-reaching sanctions now that will set back the Russian economy by decades. That means it will not be able to participate in global economic and technological progress. We know from reports that this means that Russia will not even be able to retain its military capacities at the same level.”
Gitanas Nausėda, Lithuania’s president, welcomed Scholz’s comments, saying the Russian military threat would “remain a major source of threat to regional security”.
(VAN) For many years, large-scale and small-scale farmers in the traditional food basket have been planting every season without paying attention to soil health.
(VAN) A long-delayed conference on how to restore the faltering health of global oceans kicked off in Lisbon on Jun 27, with the head of the United Nations saying the world's seas are in crisis.
(VAN) Climate-friendly practices can increase yields while improving ecosystem of farms, scientists say.
(VAN) We're currently unsure why the cells of the heart ended up dead.
(VAN) Standing on a snowy mountainside about 2,500m above sea level, Eric Marechal holds up a crimson test-tube.