The work that the US is doing to open up overland routes for the grain to get into neighboring countries, get containers into the country, and implement long-term changes meant to drive down global reliance on Ukrainian grain could collectively have an impact on the crisis . But many view the efforts as marginal fixes to a much larger problem that can’t be completely resolved until Russia eases its blockade, particularly of Ukraine’s biggest port in Odessa, which has been surrounded by Russian warships for months.
“From a practical perspective, the only option is still try and see how to unblock Odessa,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told CNN on Tuesday. “Every option should be explored and if possible, every option should be used … but unfortunately, without exploring and going forward with the Odessa option, I don’t think that there’s any other way.”
“If Russians don’t allow it, we need to, as a global community, we need to find a solution how to do it without Russian agreement,” Landsbergis said.
UN and Turkish officials are preparing for separate rounds of diplomatic talks with Moscow coalescing around a new plan to try to open up sea routes for Ukrainian grains, sources say.
Meanwhile, millions of tons of grain remain stuck in Ukraine, stored in silos and at the port in Odessa, leading to a dramatic spike in global food prices that’s likely to worsen as the war continues. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of corn and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat, according to the State Department, and the UN’s program to fight food insecurity buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year.
The emphasis on finding a solution to getting the 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, a European diplomat said.
And the clock is ticking, with the silos currently full and more grain on its way in the fall.
“In a way it’s going to get worse soon,” the diplomat said. “Nothing that exists solves the problem completely.”
US officials have hunted for alternative routes to export at least some of Ukraine’s harvest, including railing and trucking it through the western parts of the country and using sea ports outside of Ukraine. In addition to exploring options related to temporary storage supplies, they’re considering taking steps like teaching other countries how to use fertilizer more effectively so they can grow more agricultural products domestically in the long-term, administration officials said.
Addressing Russia’s blockade militarily would be a complicated task – and something that could risk 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 Julianne Smith told reporters on Wednesday she didn’t see a NATO role either.
“I don’t foresee any NATO role as of today,” Smith said. “We’re at a point where we’re open to seeing countries engage with Moscow, but what we’re disheartened to see is that there’s no indication that Russia is taking any of this seriously or negotiating in good faith.”
“Given Russian behavior in these negotiations (throughout the conflict), I think we’re skeptical that at this juncture it’s going to lead to some sort of major breakthrough,” she added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday. According to a Kremlin readout, Putin said that Moscow would support an “unimpeded” export of Ukrainian grain. Putin also said that Russia was ready to “export significant volumes of fertilizers and agricultural products” – if Western sanctions were lifted, according to the Kremlin readout.
There is strong opposition to lifting of sanctions to facilitate the unblocking of the ports. Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told CNN this week it was simply a non-starter, a sentiment echoed by US officials.
Landsbergis told CNN that the Russians believe they have leverage by blocking ships from safely transiting the Black Sea and that the world needs to make clear that this is not the case.
Turkey will likely play a significant role in brokering any potential solution to the blockade, as the country controls routes into and out of the Black Sea.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plans to visit Turkey on June 8 to discuss a sea corridor for Ukrainian exports, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday.
The senior Biden administration official says the US is backing any diplomatic efforts with Russia, though the White House is skeptical that the talks with Turkey will lead to a breakthrough.
UN officials are more hopeful of a potential agreement and have devised a plan to get grain out of Odessa through the Black Sea, and a UN diplomat said the Turks were supportive of the idea. Martin Griffiths, a British diplomat and UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, will be discussing that plan when he visits Moscow this week.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted on Tuesday that Ukraine was working on an “international UN-led operation with navies of partners ensuring a safe trade route with no security risks.”
But US and European diplomats said the idea of using international navies to protect any UN-effort is still not developed and isn’t likely to happen as of now. And Landsbergis noted that any UN effort that requires Security Council approval is poised to fail due to Russia’s membership on the council.
“I don’t see large NATO navies lining up to that at this moment. It seems that the idea is not mature enough,” a European diplomat said.
It will also be difficult to re-orient the flow of grain shipments out of Ukraine, where the entire infrastructure is set up to transport grain south into the country’s large ports along the Black Sea, which are currently blocked by Russian warships.
Caitlin Welsh, the director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said any overland routes that US and European officials are considering for exports should be seen as a “transitional solution.”
Without much progress in the Black Sea, US officials have been promoting the prospect that overland routes can help alleviate the grain problem, at least somewhat.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Biden’s nominee to be the next head of US European Command, Gen. Chris Cavoli, pointed to alternative routes for exports that included Germany’s national rail company and a Romanian port that goes through a portion of the Black Sea not being blockaded by the Russian navy.
Another administration official said the European land routes offer some potential to alleviate the logjam. “There’s wide recognition that this is probably the quickest way to address at least some of the backup exports,” the official said.
The official noted that the UN has updated their export forecast for Ukraine by either a million or half a million tons next month, just based on the work that’s already been done with the Europeans to expand the railway and trucking aspects.
However, the overland routes are not without their complications, and according to the Lithuanian Foreign Minister, some of them are very unlikely to be viable solutions.
A route via Belarus to Lithuania was not a good option, for instance, Landsbergis said, because it would be crossing through territory ruled by Putin ally and longtime dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who could demand concessions in order to allow the safe transport of the grain. A train route through Poland was not viable, he added, due to the railway gauges being different.
Supplying Ukraine with temporary storage mechanisms – such as bins and bags – is also a way to potentially salvage this year’s crop in Ukraine because the storage facilities in the country currently are nearing capacity. Temporary storage could also be used to help get the grain onto trucks and trains out of the country, one administration official said.
These efforts come as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out an overall plan last month at the UN that the US is trying to implement which includes steps such as trying to connect countries that are major agricultural producers with countries in need of those products. Blinken said Wednesday that Russia risks “what’s left of its reputation” by not allowing food to get out of Ukrainian ports, but he did not cite any additional cost that the US was willing to impose on Russia for what he called an “effective blockade. ”
“It seeks relationships with countries around the world, including many countries that are now the victim of Russian aggression because of growing food insecurity resulting from that aggression,” Blinken said at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Concerned about the long-term impact of the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration is also considering how they can incentivize American farmers to produce more wheat and other agricultural products that are now on short supply around the globe. But those moves would not have the capability to increase output this summer, because the planting season has passed.
The administration is looking to other countries as well, including helping teach them how to use fertilizer more effectively to grow more agricultural projects, officials said. Fertilizer is on short supply globally because Russia has traditionally been a primary exporter of the crop-boosting soil.
If the effort to teach countries how to more efficiently use fertilizer is successful in countries that are reliant in Ukrainian wheat imports, it could drive up their own wheat production.
“There are a number of different kinds of fertilizers and fertilizer overuse is a problem,” said an administration official, adding that the administration is considering working with other countries and providing technical assistance. “If you’re not over-utilizing it, you actually get better crop yields, and you conserve fertilizer.”
No matter what happens, Ukraine’s grain exports aren’t likely to rebound to pre-war levels anytime soon. Welsh, the CSIS expert, explained that insurance and shipping costs will remain elevated even if the ports are unblocked, and as long as the war wages on, the risk to future harvests and the potential for a global food crisis remain.
Still others have said the best option is to give Ukraine weapons like anti-ship to use against Russia’s blockade and deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine’s ports.
“Cheaper & more sustainable solution to food security would be to arm Ukraine enough to unblock the Black Sea ports,” said Daria Kaleniuk, a leading Ukrainian civil society activist.
This story has been updated with comments from a European diplomat.