Russian President Vladimir Putin at a military parade in Moscow. He has transformed food into a powerful new weapon.Foto: Mikhail Metzel / AP / picture alliance
To blackmail the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin is blocking the export of millions of tons of corn and wheat from Ukraine. By doing so, he is triggering famine in Africa and Asia – while at the same time seeking to pose as their savior.
https://www.spiegel.de-By Marian Blasberg, Alexander Chernyshev, Christina Hebel, Claus Hecking, Heiner Hoffmann, Frank Hornig, Maria Marquart, Fritz Schaap, Thore Schröder, Kurt Stukenberg, Lina Verschwele, Markus Becker, Ralf Neukirch, Mathieu von Rohr und Gerald Traufetter
Oleksander Hysiyenko strides purposefully through the archways beneath the granary in the Port of Odessa. In the face of catastrophe, he is endeavoring to maintain a semblance of normality. After all the years during which he has been the engineer in charge of this silo, he’s become one with the place. They both, as he is fond of saying, were built in 1962.
Hysiyenko grabs a handful from a conveyor belt on which a few grains of barley are sitting and lets them trickle through his fingers. “Cool and dry,” he says. “Just as it should be.”
Cool and dry. The situation is unchanged here between the cement walls of the granary. Otherwise, though, nothing is as it should be.
The conveyor belt from which Hysiyenko grabbed the leftover cereal hasn’t moved for months. For months, no trucks or trains have arrived bringing in corn and wheat harvests. Outside on the docks, where four bulk carriers were loaded each day until the Russian invasion in February, there are now nine ships bobbing idly in the waves. The crews of some of them are stuck in Odessa.
The dust that used to hang in the air has long since settled.
Hysiyenko has lived through two revolutions and the loss of the Crimea Peninsula to the Russians. But no matter what was happening in the world, there was always one constant: People were hungry and they needed Ukrainian grain. As the global population grew, so too did the silos in the port.
The constant whoosh of the grain seemed like a law of nature, but after the final ship weighed anchor on the first day after the Russian invasion, the noise vanished. The port became a restricted military area and the waters off Odessa were mined to prevent an invasion by the Russian navy. When Hysiyenko would look out to sea from the control center in the weeks following the attack, he could see Russian patrol ships on the horizon – blocking the export routes of the grain ships. Ever since the Russian warship Moskva was sunk, likely by two Ukrainian Neptune missiles, they have moved a bit further out, but the situation hasn’t changed a bit: No ships can get through. The Black Sea, through which virtually all Ukrainian grain exports passed, is blocked.
More than 20 million tons of wheat, barley and corn are now trapped inside Ukraine. After the harvest that is currently underway, it could be as much as 70 million tons. And if this grain doesn’t find its way to market soon, experts warn that a global hunger crisis could be the result. Ukrainian fields have long been responsible for feeding a significant share of the global population.
Hunger, Putin ally and former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said in April, is Russia’s “silent weapon.” He also warned that that no agricultural products would be delivered to “the enemies of Russia” if they went along with Western sanctions.
The fact that Putin means business can be seen in the fact that hardly any Russian grain ships docked in ports in sub-Saharan Africa in the spring. The 40,000 tons of wheat that Kenya received in May is just a 15th of what Russia normally delivers to the region.
Discussions these days with diplomats from places like Egypt, Pakistan and Senegal center almost exclusively on a single issue: grain deliveries. From those countries, European priorities – like Putin’s attack on the European security order and spiking energy prices – aren’t even on the radar. Survival is the order of the day for countries that depend on food deliveries from the Black Sea region, and for Putin, that is an extremely strong lever for influencing huge swaths of Asia and Africa.
The Russian president only intends to open the Black Sea for grain exports from Ukraine once the U.S. and the European Union ease the sanctions currently in place. Which puts the West in a moral dilemma: Capitulation to Putin means the loss of the most effective lever the West has in this conflict. But if the West remains steadfast, it risks a situation in which hundreds of thousands of people may suffer – and die – of famine.
Which raises the question of how to get grain out of Ukraine and into the hands of people around the world who need it. The route across the Black Sea would require a compromise with Putin. The overland route is extremely inefficient. And the provision of armed escorts for cargo ships would run the risk of escalating the conflict with Russia.
Last week, Russian and Ukrainian diplomats negotiated in Istanbul with the help of Turkish mediators in the search for a possible solution to the grain issue. It was the first meeting between the two sides since the end of March, a clear indication of just how serious the situation has become. The first signals from the talks last Wednesday were cautiously optimistic, but not more. The two sides remain at loggerheads.
The grain that grows in the fertile soil of southern Ukraine is vital for the global food system. In combination with Russia, whose trade has been limited as a result of the sanctions imposed in response to the invasion, the two countries provide around 30 percent of the wheat exported in the world. And Ukraine’s share of global corn and barley exports is almost 15 percent. The two countries also account for fully two-thirds of sunflower oil exports. Experts say that the two countries account for around 12 percent of the calories on the global food market.
With a large share of those exports now unavailable, the consequences can already be felt in areas like the Horn of Africa, Lebanon, Pakistan and Egypt. Almost all of their grain comes from the Black Sea region, and the sudden shortage has led to an explosion in prices. The price of wheat, for example, skyrocketed by almost 40 percent in the wake of the invasion, though it has since receded.
“Failure to open the ports in Ukraine will be a declaration of war on global food security,” David Beasley, the director of the World Food Program, said in May. More recently, he has said that if they don’t open soon, the world will experience a global hunger crisis in the coming months the likes of which hasn’t been seen since World War II. Furthermore, food shortages could spark uprisings, instability and mass migration. It is, he says, “a perfect storm in a perfect storm.”
He estimates that 323 million people are at risk of famine. For 49 million people in 43 countries, the threat could soon become existential, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where every second person already doesn’t have enough to eat. And the situation in countries like Senegal, Somalia and South Sudan continues to worsen by the day.
The Russian forces aren’t just blocking Ukrainian ports, they are also destroying grain silos. On May 3, the Russians blew up a silo near the Ukrainian city of Rubizhne that could store 30,000 tons of wheat. On June 4, a silo in the port of Mykolaiv, with a capacity of 42,000 tons – the second largest in the country – was destroyed, burning for more than two days. And just recently, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry posted a photo of burning wheat fields near Zaporizhzhia, allegedly bombed intentionally by Russian forces to set them on fire.
To top it all off, reliable reports have emerged that Russia has begun transporting stolen grain out of Ukraine. And that puts needy countries in the difficult position of either accepting stolen grain or allowing their populations to starve. The BBC documented Ukrainian farmers being robbed of their harvest on Russian-occupied territory. The grain is then apparently brought to the Crimea and from there by ship to Russia.
In recent weeks, there have been reports of suspicious ships embarking from Russian-occupied ports like Novorossiysk and Berdyans’k, likely carrying Ukrainian grain. Other ships, according to the Financial Times, have been loaded with grain on the Crimean Peninsula or from smaller Russian ports and then sailed off toward Turkey or Syria.
The bombs and shells that have detonated among the silos, in the fields and on the fertilizer warehouses; the destroyed threshers, tractors and plows; the mines that farmers have found in their fields after returning from exile; the harvests and factory machinery that have been stolen: Taken together, it all begins to show the outlines of a broader strategy.
There are those, like the American historian Scott Nelson, who believe that a long-held dream of Putin’s is that of uniting the fields of former Soviet republics like Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus into a Moscow-run, OPEC-like grain cartel. Others, like Kremlin expert Andrey Sizov, believe that Putin only realized after the invasion of Ukraine the power of the agrarian lever he suddenly held in his hands.
Whatever the case, Putin is now using the shortage of grain on the global market “to blackmail” the West, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says, a sentiment shared by many other European leaders. German Agricultural Minister Cem Özdemir goes even further, referring to it as a treacherous strategy, the scrupulousness of which can hardly be surpassed. Whereas Putin is blocking grain deliveries on the Black Sea on the one hand, he is also, on the other, posing as the savior of poorer countries in Africa by suggesting that Western sanctions are to blame for the food crisis.
How Putin’s Narrative Has Gained Traction in Africa
There are currently very few African leaders who have an interest in standing up to Putin. That recently became clear when Senegalese President Macky Sall traveled to the Russian resort town of Sochi. Sall, who is currently head of the African Union, came as the representative of an extremely indebted country that doesn’t have enough money to purchase wheat on the global market.
Sall spoke to the French radio broadcaster RFI after meeting with Putin to beg him for grain deliveries. Africa, he said, is completely at the mercy of the emerging crisis. “Our countries, even if they are far away from the battlefield, are innocent victims.”
Sitting in an easy chair with his country’s flag behind him, Sall said that the West was making it difficult for Russia to export wheat with its sanctions. He then called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to clear the Ukrainian mines to allow for the safe passage of grain ships.
It almost sounded as though Putin himself were speaking.
The Russian narrative has taken hold in Africa. Given their dire need for foodstuffs, African leaders aren’t particularly interested in asking if Putin might be confusing cause and effect in this crisis.
And he was quickly rewarded. After returning home, Sall announced to mill operators that a delivery would soon be arriving at a discounted price. When South African President Cyril Ramaphosa then negotiated with Putin a few days later over a delivery of Russian agricultural goods, the Kremlin crowed that Putin was please with Russia’s “strategic partnership” with the two countries.
Zelenskyy has had a harder time cementing ties with African heads of state. The Ukrainian president has requested on several occasions to be given the opportunity to speak with African Union representatives. A video meeting, though, was continually postponed. And when it did finally take place, only four of the 55 African leaders participated.
In contrast to Putin, whose grain silos are filled to overflowing, Zelenskyy doesn’t have much to offer. For one, he can hardly deliver the wheat and corn he does have, and for another, he doesn’t have any spare weapons lying around to arm African militaries. Which is why the Russian narrative has taken hold in Africa. Given their dire need for foodstuffs, African leaders aren’t particularly interested in asking if Putin might be confusing cause and effect in this crisis. The result is that Putin has fashioned himself as a kind of anti-colonial Robin Hood saving the African continent from the West.
How the West Hopes to Save Ukrainian Grain
According to European Commission figures, 20 million tons of grain must be exported from Ukraine by the end of July, in part to make room for the coming harvest. But in times of war, doing so in such a short amount of time would be a monumental task, according to a Commission study. Some 300 large ships would be necessary along with thousands of trains bringing the grain to the ports. Transporting grain overland costs around $120 more per ton than by ship.
Since it has become clear that Putin is using grain as a strategic lever, hectic diplomacy has ensued. Several European heads of government, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, have sought to gauge by phone how willing the Russian president might be to loosen the sea blockade. In Ankara, UN negotiators met with Russian representatives, but for several weeks, they all simply ran up against the same, hardly fulfillable demands.
Putin insists that Kyiv must clear the mines from Ukrainian ports, which Ukraine rejects out of fear of a Russian invasion. Then came the demand for an easing of the Russian sanctions in exchange for the loosening of the sea blockade. Later, a suggestion arose calling for the grain to be exported via the occupied port of Mariupol, which would involve Ukraine giving up control over its grain to the Russians. Plus, the city’s port is largely destroyed following the weeks of fighting there.
Meanwhile, with every week that goes by, the number of heads of state begging for grain in Moscow is rising. And no small number of them are willing to advance Putin’s propaganda according to which spreading global hunger is a direct consequence of Western sanctions. Even if food and fertilizer are explicitly untouched by the sanctions, many Africans believe that their former colonial rulers are to blame for their current suffering.
By weaponizing grain, Putin has brought the consequences of his war to other continents and involved the governments of the West in a time-wasting game of chicken. Every move Putin makes is reflected in the grain prices in the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Even if the price shifts are mere cents per kilogram, such vibrations can lead to crisis becoming catastrophe.
Furthermore, agricultural production outside of Ukraine has also been facing growing challenges as a result of climate change. According to the study from the European Commission, global wheat production could drop for the first time in four years. Droughts in Europe, the United States, North Africa, East Africa and the Middle East combined with heavy rainfall last year in China will, the report concluded, shrink harvests. On the Horn of Africa, the rainy season has failed to materialize for the fourth year in a row.
And hunger doesn’t detonate like a bomb in a grain silo. It arrives slowly. And it is already there.
In Lebanon, which gets most of its grain from the Black Sea region, school meals have already been cancelled in some places, while in April, bread prices doubled within just two weeks. In Senegal, all wheat mills ceased production because they were no longer able to afford market prices. Egypt has banned the private trading of grain to prevent a price explosion. And to save famine victims from starvation, the World Food Program has had to cut rations in Yemen. In South Sudan, rations to fully 1.7 million people recently had to be suspended altogether.
Now, the question is: What possibilities are available to get Ukrainian grain to the market and thus blunt Putin’s weapon? How sincere are Russia’s diplomatic promises that they want to contribute to a solution to the problem?
More fundamental questions have also arisen, such as how resilient global supply chains really are if they collapse as a result of a conflict between two neighboring states. In truth, say agricultural experts, there is no global shortage. It’s just that the grain currently available is poorly distributed – because far too much of it ends up in feeding troughs, in gas tanks in the form of biofuel or in the garbage.
On almost the save day that Hysiyenko, the agricultural engineer, checked the temperature in his portside granary, a team of doctors around 5,000 kilometers to the south set out a few bamboo mats in the shade of an acacia tree. The doctors have come on this morning to the small, remote village of Kesi in the arid northeastern corner of Kenya to measure the extent of the famine.
On the Front Lines of Hunger
A number of mothers with their children have gathered under the tree, waiting to be called. Rukia Hassan is one of these mothers. She is wearing a long, colorful robe, and her three-year-old daughter Maka is next to her. In Rukia’s hand is a small, purple notebook containing a few notes about Maka: her height, her weight and the vaccinations she has received.
When it’s Maka’s turn, a nurse wraps a measuring tape around her thin upper arm. The measuring tape has three zones. Green means the child is receiving sufficient nourishment. Yellow means there is cause for concern. Red is an emergency. Maka’s arm is in the yellow zone. But only barely.
Hassan sits to the side with an empty expression on her face as the nurse writes a few numbers in the notebook. Then, the mother is handed a bag full of a peanut paste – which she quickly tears open after she sinks down onto the steps of the village school moments later. She has to rest. It’s midday, but she hasn’t yet had anything to eat. “Again,” she says.
The air shimmers in the heat. The school behind her is closed because no water is available. Hassan says she is the mother of eight children. Some nights, after a couple of days without food, they will cry from their stomach aches for so long that they eventually fall asleep, she says. “This inability to give them the food they need is unbearable,” she says.
Kesi is a nomadic settlement whose residents live scattered across the steppe in round, grass-covered huts. Now, in the dry season, it is a village of women. Like Hassan’s husband, most of the men have headed out with their cattle herds, chasing the rain that hardly falls anymore here in the north of Tana River County. Each year, she says, it is increasingly difficult to find green grazing lands. Of the 40 head of cattle they once possessed, only 10 have survived the drought.
Hassan doesn’t know precisely why war is being waged in Ukraine, but she has a feeling that things have spun out of control – the climate, global politics. “Everything is extreme,” she says. “Nothing is normal anymore.”
She and her daughter are among the 3.5 million Kenyans who are considered to be extremely undernourished. Some 755,000 children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition. And Kenya, which has been waiting for weeks for Russia to resume wheat exports, is just one example of a local crisis turning into a catastrophe. While East Africa is suffering from droughts, South Sudan has been hit hard by floods. Ethiopia, meanwhile, is embroiled in civil war, while Mali is struggling with Islamist terror.
The overall situation can be seen in the control center of the World Food Program in Rome, the giant screens of which display the real-time global map of famine. Several different shades, from orange to dark red, mark the countries facing the most acute risk. The entire Sahel region, along with central and eastern Africa, from Burkina Faso through South Sudan to Somalia, is one continuous red belt. To the north are the red-colored crisis countries of the Middle East. Further to the east are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar.
“I have never seen so much hunger in the world,” says Alex Marianelli, a 49-year-old Frenchman, as he traces the map with his finger. He has worked for the WFP for the last 23 years and has been in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Today, he is head of the logistics department and, from his home base in Rome, controls a fleet of airplanes, ships and trucks that provide 150 million needy people with grain in more than 80 countries.
Marianelli’s team buys around 4 million tons of food each year, more than half of it wheat, with around 50 percent originating in Ukraine. They don’t have access to large warehouses, partly because they believed that ports like Odessa would always remain open.
When problems arose, Marianelli says, it was usually on the last leg of the transport route, between hubs like Dubai or Djibouti and the final destinations where the aid recipients were waiting. Now, though, he says, the entire supply chain is problematic.
The Global Food System No Longer Works
The fragility of supply chain logistics had already been demonstrated by the lockdowns during the pandemic, when many ports shut down operations. Then came the war, and all the cogs that already weren’t meshing properly jammed even worse.
The blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports is just one of the factors complicating the grain market right now. Energy costs are high, and last year, inflation drove the UN’s Food Price Index to peak after new peak. In May, India, the world’s second largest wheat producer, halted wheat exports following a drought. China, the largest wheat producer, has made food security a state doctrine and is hoarding 159 million tons in its silos, according to calculations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And Russia imposed export taxes and quotas even before the invasion to keep prices stable at home. Additional export restrictions were in place until June. And yet Russia is expecting a record harvest this year due to good weather and could, at least theoretically, compensate for part of the Ukrainian crop shortfall: Compared to last year’s roughly 33 million metric tons, forecasts for 2022 predict 40 to 42 million metric tons of wheat for export, and Putin even spoke of up to 50 million metric tons available for export. In return, though, Putin’s spokesman Peskov said, Russia expects sanctions to be lifted.
For a buyer like WFP’s Marianelli, there isn’t much room for maneuver in this mix. To fill his cargo ships with wheat, he is now looking to the U.S. and Canada, even if that means longer delivery times and higher shipping costs. It’s not that there’s a shortage of grain, Marianelli says. It’s just difficult to reach, which is why he says he pays double today for a ton of wheat than he did just last year.
Marianelli’s problem is similar to the one facing Rukia Hassan, just that he has to feed a growing number of hungry people with a stagnating budget.
WFP has requested $20 billion this year, but rich donor countries haven’t even pledged half that amount yet. When will the rest come? Who will keep their promise? And what about the extra $1 billion they need right now as a war supplement?
Famine and drought-stricken countries are virtually absent from the news today, says nutrition expert Luca Russo of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “A couple of years ago, these things could’ve caught the attention of the international community. Now today, basically these things are almost not in the news.”
Hunger is just one crisis among many in the world. The people fighting it lack not only the money, but also a lobby. Is it fair, many are asking, that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy gets to speak on screen to so many parliaments in European countries when others, like the Kenyan president, aren’t given the same chance?
Normally, when things get this far out of whack, hopeful eyes turn to the market. It has always seemed a law of nature – not unlike the constant whoosh of the grain in the Odessa port silos – that the market would restore balance. Preachers of the pure market doctrine argue that, in normal times, scarcity would not only cause prices to rise, it would also also increase the likelihood of profits, leading to investment and increased production, which would in turn lead to oversupply, causing prices to fall. But such processes often take a long time to play out, and the current need in parts of the global south is acute.
Fertilizers Also in Low Supply
On top of that, Russia is not only one of the largest producers of wheat, but also one of the world’s largest manufacturers of artificial fertilizers. Without these plant nutrients, made with nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium carbonate, scientists have calculated that more than half of the planet’s nearly 8 billion people could not be fed.
Like wheat, fertilizer is a rare commodity today. Many manufacturers had already scaled back production due to high fuel prices, and Russia and China then limited exports to continue supplying their own farmers. The consequences, which have been exacerbated by the sanctions, are dramatic in many places.
Farmland across the world now lies fallow because farms don’t have the means to cover the sharp rise in fertilizer prices. Many are now fertilizing less, resulting in a downward spiral of smaller and poorer harvests, loss of revenues and to even less fertilizer the following season. According to the WFP, only 46 percent of fertilizer needs were met in West Africa at the end of April. The African Development Bank estimates that farmers in the region will harvest around 20 percent less food as a result of this gap. Because their governments lack the money for expensive wheat on the world market, many of these people will sooner or later be added to Marianelli’s register of the needy.
Fertilizer is just one of the reasons that many farmers south of the equator are abandoning their fields and seeking livelihoods on the outskirts of the big cities. In a village like Kesi, the problem is the rain that no longer falls. Elsewhere, it’s tropical storms, floods or insect infestations that are making things difficult.
The scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have outlined what this means for agriculture in their latest assessment report. They conclude that the global corn crop could decline by up to 45 percent on a planet that is 2 degrees Celsius warmer. In the case of wheat, which already forms fewer grains in the ear at 31 degrees Celsius during flowering, that figure would be around 12 percent.
Moving Grain By Rail
Almost five months after the beginning of the war, one might think that a limit had been reached, a period of reflection. But a visit to Reni, one of Ukraine’s most important inland ports, quickly banishes such thoughts. Here, around 300 kilometers by road southwest of Odessa, on the border with Moldova and Romania, ships are lined up on the Danube. Around 5,000 drivers are waiting on the highway leading to the port for their trucks to be processed. The bushes are full of plastic litter. It stinks of urine.
Many men are napping in the cabins of their trucks, while others are huddling together and complaining about the lack of toilets or about all the bureaucracy. Lenin, one growls, is still in command in Reni.
Almost overnight, Reni has become a place upon which hundreds of thousands of lives depend. Nervous traders, truckers and logistics professionals here are trying to get Ukrainian grain out of the country. The clock is ticking, says entrepreneur Dmytro Golubyev, who is currently converting an old, thermo-insulated vegetable warehouse near the port into a 20,000-ton granary because of a lack of storage capacity at the river port. The silos are critical, because the summer harvest needs to be stored cool and dry before it is shipped. If it’s not, it becomes susceptible to mold and pests.
The clock is ticking, agrees Viorel Panait of Romania as he steers his SUV along the roads of the Black Sea port of Constanța, 200 kilometers to the south. Panait, wearing jeans with a pressed shirt, is responsible for the operations of a company that loads cargo from smaller ships arriving via the Danube-Black Sea Canal, including those from Reni, onto larger freighters.
More and more Ukrainian exports are now passing through Romania, but Constanța is also a bottleneck. As in Reni, the loading cranes, which are standing idle on this morning, date back to bygone eras. And the oldest silos have been around for 120 years. Hundreds of discarded freight cars stand on the overgrown tracks.
To speed things up a bit, Panait says they bought a new conveyor belt in March for 4 million euros. Given the volumes of grain that need to be moved out of Ukraine, it would actually make sense to modernize the infrastructure on a larger scale. But such investments are risky, says Panait, because nobody knows how long the ports in Odessa and Kherson will remain closed.
“We need guarantees,” Panait says, with a hint of annoyance in his voice. After all, it is absurd that in these times, the flow of grain depends solely on the commitment of private companies. The logistics companies of Constanța recently sent a kind of wish list to the EU. Panait wants 500 million euros for equipment and machinery, “a small effort” for Europe, he says, that would double their capacity. But the request is stuck somewhere in Brussels, as is an action plan adopted in May that called on member states to establish “solidarity corridors” for the export of the grain.
This plan, written by the European Commission, details trucks or train cars that market participants should make available to expedite transports. In a June meeting of the EU Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR), the agency “reiterated the urgency” of transportation corridors, according to minutes of the meeting obtained by DER SPIEGEL.
Border stations, where grain sits for an average of 16 days before being transferred from the larger Ukrainian railway track gauge, a relic of the Soviet era, to the narrower one of neighboring countries, are to become more transit friendly. The plan states that hygiene controls and customs duties should be eliminated to expedite exports. But even the EU can’t work faster than the cranes in Constanța. As recently as the end of June, much was still in the “finalization phase,” according to Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean.
All of this means that logistics entrepreneur Panait is faced with the dilemma of having to perform some sort of grain triage. It’s not only Ukrainian farmers who harvest in July, but also their Romanian counterparts. One of Panait’s associates says that it makes more sense from a logistical point of view to ship the Romanian grain. Although such a move would show little by way of solidarity.
The inland ports, the freight stations, the matchmaking platform touted by EU Commissioner Vălean where Ukrainian producers can search for grain shippers, the improvised warehouses now springing up all along the border – all of these are attempts to re-link the old cogs again. At the end of the day, though, roads, rails and canals will never have the capacity of a seaport.
Replacing an average commodity freighter would require around 2,400 trucks, or 34 freight trains of 32 cars each. Each ship with a cargo capacity of 60,000 tons that Hysiyenko launches in Odessa, holds approximately as much grain as the Austrian Federal Railways have taken out of the country since the beginning of the war.
Powerlessness in the West
Hence the tired eyes with which Ukrainian Agriculture Minister Mykola Solskyi, 43, presents the crucial figures from behind a conference table on the third floor of his ministry. In normal years, he says, his country’s grain exports are as high as 6 million tons during the harvest months. In March, that figure was only 200,000 tons. In April, 1 million. In May, 1.5 million. ” If we exhaust all means available to us,” he told DER SPIEGEL in an interview
in June, “we will hopefully reach a monthly export of 2 to 2.5 million tons.” That’s the limit, the most that you can get out without the ports.
Solskyi leaned forward.
“Many people in Asian, Arab and North African countries still believe that the problem of this war will somehow take care of itself,” he said. “Some countries also have grain reserves. But these will be used up in two months and the war will still be going, with no new grain coming from us. The pressure will increase significantly around the world.”
Life may have returned to the cafés around the corner on Kyiv’s Maidan square, but Russia’s war of aggression has destroyed or rendered unusable around 30 percent of Ukraine’s arable land. If farms that are now living off their seed and fertilizer stocks don’t sell anything this summer, they will be out of business this winter because they will be out of money. Rotten or unsold grain means there won’t be any money left to plant the seeds next year. Preventing that from happening, Solskyi says, will require an immediate, and not an eventual, end of the blockade.
But how might that work? Solskyi shrugs his shoulders. “As long as Putin doesn’t get in the way,” he says, “it wouldn’t be that hard.”
In May, when Egypt refused a shipment from Russian on the suspicion that it contained stolen goods from Ukraine, for a brief moment it looked as though there might be some movement on the issue.
After Russian diplomats held talks in Turkey with the Turkish president’s representatives and the United Nations, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia suddenly wrote of a deal that could restore grain shipments from ports like Odessa. The article stated that the Turkish military would help to clear mines and could establish security corridors through which they would escort freighters to neutral waters. The news led to a drop in wheat prices.
But they rose again shortly thereafter when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov again made the easing of Western sanctions a condition for lifting the naval blockade during a visit to Ankara. There was also no longer any talk of an end to the export restrictions that Russia had announced in the meantime.
Putin holds the trump cards, and he’s playing for time. With each passing day, he seems to be getting closer to his dream of an OPEC for grain.
“We can’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by Putin,” German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir said in Berlin in late June, after a delegation of more than 50 countries made the decision to launch the Alliance for Food Security. “Now, it’s also about showing what we’re made of.”
But how is a reopening of the ports going to happen without a loosening of the sanctions? What can the West do if it doesn’t want to wait for Putin to move on the issue voluntarily?
The most specific proposal so far came from Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who suggested weeks ago that a “coalition of the willing” could move escort ships into the region to safely escort grain freighters out of the Black Sea. Russia expert Sabine Fischer of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) also believes that bold decisions are needed. “Even if it is difficult to implement,” she says, such a military-secured corridor is the best option.
The difficulty comes from the fact that the Russian fleet could view escort ships as legitimate war targets. And Putin could interpret such armed convoys, even if they fly a humanitarian flag, as direct Western intervention in the war effort.
Because these concerns prevailed, Landsbergis’ proposal disappeared from the discussion again. It petered out, as did the suggestion that Putin would be placed in a moral bind if the escort ships were to come from affected countries like Egypt.
Hopes are thus now focused on reaching an agreement at the talks taking place in Istanbul. In Berlin, one of the proposals currently circulating looks as follows: Ukraine would provide a sea corridor that would be cleared of mines and thus made passable. Ukraine would escort freighters belonging to private companies within its territorial waters. Prior to sailing into Ukrainian waters, the transport ships would likely have to be checked for hidden arms deliveries, but it is unclear by whom. Russia, according to the plan, would then allow the cargo to pass.
Turkey is leading the negotiations and is spreading the word in diplomatic circles that it is anticipating a breakthrough. But significant questions remain unanswered. The most crucial: Who takes control of the ships? Turkey, working together with the United Nations, could be one possibility. But Russia apparently rejects that scenario. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said during her trip to Asia that Russia was trying to “keep the United Nations out” when it comes to grain shipments.
Ukraine’s recapture of the strategically important Snake Island in the Black Sea could also bring some relief. Eight Romanian cargo ships have since entered smaller Ukrainian ports – and could transport wheat through the Bosporus Strait in the future.
World Food Program buyer Marianelli is also hoping for a diplomatic breakthrough. “Before the war, Ukraine exported 6 to 7 million tons of grain per month,” he says. “These volumes were necessary to keep the situation on the global food market stable. In June, it was only 2.5 million tons.” He says that if the three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea were opened now, he would expect Ukraine to be able to promptly deliver another 2 million tons per month, with an additional 2 million tons likely to follow later. Then “the prewar level would again be reached.”
Such a deal, he says, would be a “massive game changer,” even if logistical issues would first have to be ironed out. Even that, though, wouldn’t be enough to solve the world’s food problems. As such, scientists are now considering ways to pacify the wheat war in the longer term. “Why don’t we try to solve the short-term problems resulting from war with a long-term change, toward a healthier food system in which there is enough for everyone?” asks Benjamin Bodirsky of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
Only one-fifth of the grain in Germany is used for direct human consumption, says the agricultural expert. A good half is fed to animals, with the rest used for industrial purposes or as an admixture in the fuel tanks of motor vehicles. A large share is used to fatten cattle, pigs and other animals.
He believes that many countries are by no means helpless in the face of their citizens’ consumer behavior. He argues that it could be managed through taxes that would make meat products more expensive and fruit or vegetables cheaper. He says the grain content in biofuels could also be lowered.
The scientists’ proposals could serve as the basis for a strategy that brings together ideas in the fight against hunger, climate change and the battle for healthier diets. What that would require, Bodirsky says, is political will.
Just what he means by this can be observed in the Senegalese tourist resort of L’Arc en Ciel, where 40 farmers and activists recently gathered for a workshop organized by the Alliance for Food Sovereignty.
They are discussing the seeds that their forefathers planted in the ground with raised voices. One of the farmers looking to the past to find the continent’s future here is Ngouye Camara, a burly 56-year-old Senegalese man with a cleanly trimmed beard who owns a 40-hectare farm in the south of the country. On his farm, he grows the ancient grain fonio. Camara says he has barely been able to keep up with production since wheat became scarce.
Things were different when he got started in the 1980s, a time when Camara says people in the village laughed at him. At that time, Senegal was being flooded with European wheat, which was so cheap that it profoundly changed the country’s food culture. Camara points to the buffet next to the pool, where pizza breads are laid out, dumplings, cupcakes.
All from wheat.
In Senegal today, the baguette is political, many say. Without the reliance on wheat, Putin’s “silent weapon” would lose its impact.