Rival plans to export Ukraine’s vitally needed grain have been drawn up by France and Turkey, as concern grows over the potential impact on the world’s poorest people of failures so far to get the grain out of the country.
The Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, said it was vital a timeline to release the grain is prepared by the time the G7 summit starts next weekend. “A series of deadlines are fast approaching and the drama of a world famine naturally concentrated in the poorest parts of the world, especially Africa, is approaching,” he said following talks with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Thursday.
Italy is backing the idea of a UN resolution, so far rejected by Russia, that would allow a UN convoy to police grain ships that left the Ukrainian-held Black Sea port of Odesa and other ports and then sailed towards the Bosphorus. But the French president, Emmanuel Macron, is sceptical that a UN resolution will be agreed and is proposing instead a massive stepping up of grain exports out of Romanian ports.
In a change of tack, Turkey is now promoting the option of safe routes out of the three Ukrainian ports, even though the ports have not been de-mined. Previously it had been assumed that more than 400 mines would need to be removed, but Ukraine is wary of clearing a passage for Russian ships to enter its ports it has cast-iron UN security guarantees if Russia was to mount a surprise attack.
The Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, claimed on Wednesday that “since the location of the mines is known certain safe lines would be established at three ports”. He said commercial ships, possibly guided by Ukrainians, could come and go safely without a need to clear the mines. Officials under Turkish monitoring would be able to inspect the commercial ships for smuggled weaponry on Russia’s behalf.
David Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian negotiating team speaking at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, cast doubt on the plan. “Our military people are against it so that is why we have very limited optimism about this model,” he said.
It would take two weeks to de-mine the harbors and then it would be necessary to empty the silos in time for September and the new harvest.
Macron, who visited Romania earlier this week, has been urging a doubling of the land and rail routes to the large Romanian port of Constanta, more than 450km south of Odesa. But Constanta is almost full to capacity.
“Odesa is a few dozen kilometers from Romania, and through Romania [we would] be able to access the Danube and the railway,” he said. “We are in the process of creating a kind of connection point where we could export this grain much more strongly, quickly and massively than we do today.”
Most of the food produced by Ukraine, one of the bread baskets of the world, has been exported from seven Black Sea ports. In the eight months before the conflict began, according to the UN World Food Program, about 51 million tons of grain passed through them. Trade in Ukraine was worth $47bn a year.
Joe Biden has separately proposed building extra silos on the Polish border in an attempt to prevent Russia from potentially taking the grain.
Some of the grain is being exported via Baltic ports. According to one Ukrainian estimate, only 20% of Ukrainian exports, which normally ship via Black Sea ports, could ever be transported by rail to Baltic ports. The cost of road transport increased fivefold last year.