Russian attacks on grain exports challenge Ukraine, and the world

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Russian attacks on grain exports challenge Ukraine, and the world

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Russia has launched near-nightly attacks on Ukrainian export facilities since it withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Tons of grain have burned and prices have surged, reviving concerns for worsening global food security.

Beside a wrecked loading platform, two missile tail pieces spill with barley, an incongruent image created by the Russian campaign to crush Ukraine’s grain export capability.

The United Nations and many African and Middle Eastern nations, especially, depend upon the vast grain harvest in Ukraine – it produces 10% of the world’s wheat and 15% of the world’s corn – to feed millions of people.

“We never expected such things to happen to us,” says Olha Romanova, who built up the Willow Farm facility from her family’s small plot in 1996. “You should count your importance by the number of rockets they send. We can’t fit it into our heads; there is no military logic.”

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Ms. Romanova says the official Russian justification for the strike was so absurd – that a clandestine drone-making factory was hidden in her storage buildings, in the heart of a rural farming community – that she just cried when she heard it.

Today, workers use shovels to separate burnt barley from clean, drag away destroyed vehicles, and load remaining stocks onto trucks – when they aren’t marveling at the remnants of the Russian missiles that turned their lives upside down. They estimate that only 30% of the facility is repairable.

“The situation is changing every day,” says Ms. Romanova, who notes that the facility will, for the time being, have to “sell from the wheels” – a term that means loading the harvested grains directly onto trucks for transshipment, without storing at all.

And this family business is not alone, as Ukraine struggles to recalibrate its export strategy in the midst of Russian bombardment and a potential blockade.

Since Russia withdrew last week from the Black Sea Grain Initiative – which for one year ensured the safe export of food from Ukraine – it has launched near-nightly waves of missiles and drones against Ukrainian ports and export facilities. On Thursday Ukrainian military officials said a missile fired overnight from a Russian submarine in the Black Sea struck the port in Odesa, killing a port employee.

Ukrainian officials estimate that some 100,000 metric tons of grain (one metric ton is 1,000 kilograms, or 2,200 pounds) have now been destroyed across the Odesa region – including 60,000 metric tons at the Chornomorsk port alone – and the targeting of Black Sea ports and smaller ports on the Danube River has raised doubts about shipping safety.

Grain prices have surged nearly 20% since Russia pulled out of the deal, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called on Russia to return to the agreement because of the impact on “vulnerable countries struggling to feed their people.”

“Some will go hungry; some will starve; many will die as a result of these decisions,” the U.N. aid chief, Martin Griffiths, told the Security Council last week.

Alla Stoianova, the Ukrainian official in charge of agriculture for the Odesa region, says stopping the smooth transfer of grain to export facilities early in the harvest season is Russia’s main aim. Some 2 million metric tons of grain are ready for export, she says, and another 1 million metric tons are “waiting on farms to be loaded.”

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Yet Russia appears to be planning more than attacking grain transfer logistics on land. Moscow announced in recent days that it will consider any vessel attempting to reach Ukraine to be a “potential carrier of military-purpose cargoes” – and therefore subject to attack.

The United Kingdom Ministry of Defense reported Wednesday that Russia’s Black Sea fleet had “altered its posture” to blockade Ukraine and to patrol shipping lanes between Odesa and Turkey’s Bosporus.

Ms. Stoianova has the estimated losses of grain and export capacity from each Russian strike at the tip of her tongue. She notes that more than $500 million in Ukrainian state funds have been earmarked to insure ships that export grain, even in the absence of the Black Sea grain deal.

And she suggests an additional security measure.

“We are sure that NATO and the U.S. have the ability to escort ships and protect them” in the Black Sea, she says.

“We definitely received signals of them wanting to help us, but there are some formalities and rules, and players and powers,” says Ms. Stoianova. She says Ukraine also understands that NATO has a “long line” of other priorities, and that Ukraine is not yet an alliance member.

“But the situation with Ukraine now is exceptional and is not the same as in other countries,” she says. “Today we are literally the protection from aggression for all of Europe, so we really hope this exception can be made for Ukraine, because the consequences can be disastrous.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is convening a summit this week with 21 African heads of state in St. Petersburg (down from 45 at a Russia-Africa summit in 2019 in Sochi), some of whom have complained that Russia’s blockade of Ukraine threatens their food supplies. In his speech to the gathering Thursday, Mr. Putin said Russia – also a big grain exporter, which expects a record harvest this year – can fill any gaps and would provide free grain to at least six African nations.

The Black Sea grain deal was originally negotiated by the U.N. and Turkey to ensure that the most vulnerable nations, such as Somalia, Yemen, Egypt, and Afghanistan, received enough food. Indeed, under the grain deal, the U.N.’s World Food Program had grown by this month to depend upon Ukraine for 80% of its global wheat for distribution, up from 50% in 2021 and 2022, according to U.N. figures.

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“We produce five to six times more food than we consume; we will not go hungry, no matter what,” says Ms. Stoianova. “But what it [a stoppage] means for the world is a question of food security. A large number of people of the world are now not receiving our grain.”

Her anger becomes palpable regarding recent Russian strikes that have burned grain supplies at dockside and that she considers cynical.

“Russians don’t need Ukrainians; they need our land and resources,” she argues. “They don’t care about Africans, or other suffering countries. They want control over food security.”

On Monday, the Russian campaign crept closer to NATO member Romania. Drone strikes before dawn on the Reni port, on the Danube River, destroyed an estimated 3,500 metric tons of grain waiting to be loaded.

Reni is one of two Soviet-era ports on the Danube that Ukraine has been expanding in order to ship grain directly to Europe by barge, to bypass the Black Sea. In 2022, it exported 16 million metric tons of grain and has now achieved that same volume in the first seven months of this year.

Targeting that port is considered a sign of Russian resolve to disrupt exports from Ukraine, since it lies just a few hundred yards across the river from Romania.

“No one knows what is next; Russia is trying to press European countries, all our friends, to pressure Ukraine to make compromises,” says Eugene Postovik, an Odesa-based marine and cargo surveyor with Svertilov Marine Consulting.

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Immediately after the drone attack on Reni, clients were asking for fresh risk assessments, he says. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis strongly condemned Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure “very close to Romania” and warned of “serious risks” to Black Sea security.

An earlier attack on the Izmail port, also on the Danube, damaged one large crane and hit two storage silos.

Mr. Postovik says that while many people are focused on how many tons of grain are being destroyed in the attacks, a far bigger problem is the damage to port facilities, noting, “It takes one year to rebuild a terminal, to get it to the same capacity.”

There is gratitude for the tough statements against Russia at the U.N., but “they are only complaints. We need solutions,” he says.

Further inland, at Ms. Romanova’s damaged grain storage facility, an air raid siren sounds and 15 or so workers rush to evacuate the site, waiting out the alarm on shaded grass.

“We never did that before,” says Ms. Romanova, of heeding the frequent air raid sirens. “But since we have been given a second chance, now we react to each one.

“This damage we can fix, but the most precious thing that can’t be replaced are human lives.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.


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