Diplomatic war over Ukrainian grain escalates

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Think of it as war beyond war. Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine and ongoing military offensives to seize more of its neighbor’s territory have caused much destruction alone – tens of thousands of civilians are dead, millions more are displaced and there have been billions of dollars in damage to Ukraine’s cities and critical infrastructure.

But the crisis has also had dramatic repercussions around the world. The cumulative effect of Russian attacks on Ukraine and the blockade of its Black Sea ports, along with Western sanctions on Russian exports, has caused prices to spike in places far from the conflict zone. In the poorest countries of Asia and Africa, the cost of staples like wheat and cooking oil has skyrocketed and created new strains on societies that can least afford them. In the Horn of Africa alone, up to 20 million people could go hungry this year amid food shortages and prolonged drought.

Today, foreign governments are scrambling to find options to unleash Ukraine’s huge supply of agricultural products, especially wheat. Ukrainian officials say some 20 million tonnes of grain are trapped in the country, with Russia blockading both ports that remain in Ukrainian hands and allegedly bombed Ukrainian installations that store grain.

Through various diplomatic channels, Ukrainian officials are exploring the possibility of moving grain shipments by rail to distant ports on the Baltic Sea, as well as to neighboring Romania. But significant logistical issues remain, including whether these ports have the capacity to handle the increased loads efficiently. Cold War-era construction can also present an obstacle.

“Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania and other former members of the Soviet Union use the Russian railway gauge standard”, explained the Wall Street Journal. “Poland, Romania and most of the rest of Europe use a narrower gauge. To transport grain across these borders, either the running gear of the cars must be changed or the cargo must be moved to new trains.

Turkey’s Delicate Role in the Russo-Ukrainian War

On Monday, reports in Russian state media pointed out a nascent Russian-Turkish plan to ease the blockade of the large port of Odessa on the Black Sea. Turkish ships would help clear the waters off the city’s coast and ensure safe passage for Ukrainian cargo ships carrying the grain across the Bosphorus and to Mediterranean ports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected in Ankara on Wednesday for talks with his Turkish counterparts.

However, Ukrainian officials have expressed serious reservations about the plan. “By commenting in advance on the conclusion of the agreement, Russia seeks to shift the responsibility to Ukraine” for having disrupted the supply, Taras Kachka, Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Economy, told Bloomberg News. “But the fact remains that the food crisis was artificially created by Russia and Russia alone.”

On Twitter, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned of the Kremlin using this opening to force an invasion of Odessa. In recent weeks, politicians and diplomats from the Baltic states and Poland – the countries most suspicious of Russia’s designs – have also warned against dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin on easing the blockade.

Russian officials have sought to emphasize their own thwarted food and fertilizer exports, thanks to sweeping Western sanctions imposed on the country’s economy since its invasion of Ukraine. US and Ukrainian officials accuse Moscow of using its blockade as a form of blackmail to secure some sanctions relief.

US officials also cited apparent evidence of Russian ships carrying “stolen” Ukrainian grain from ports under their control, including from the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Moscow in 2014. “It is difficult to consider Russian offers of good faith given how they are actively and intentionally destroying food in Ukraine and exacerbating global food insecurity,” a US official told Politico.

Outside the West, Putin is less isolated than you might think

But elsewhere, governments are more receptive to the Russian position. On Friday, Senegalese President Macky Sall, also chairman of the African Union, met Putin in the Black Sea city of Sochi. There, Sall lamented how African countries, “although they are far from the theater, are victims of this crisis economically.”

Between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported some 44% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Since the recent disruptions, wheat prices have risen by about 45 percent, according to the African Development Bank.

With a Putin at his side, Sall urged relief for Ukraine and the country that chose to attack him. “The fact that this crisis led to the cessation of exports from Ukraine, but also from Russia because of the sanctions, we found ourselves in between,” Sall told reporters. “It is absolutely necessary that [governments in the West] help to facilitate the export of Ukrainian cereals, but also that Russia is able to export fertilizers, food products, but especially cereals.

A majority of African nations in the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But in a time of growing economic crisis, it matters less to countries far from conflict how they get their food and who sends it.

“Africans don’t care where they get their food from, and if anyone is going to moralize about it, they are wrong,” said Hassan Khannenje, director of the HORN International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in Kenya. told the New York Timesreferring to reports of Ukrainian grain shipments being stolen by Russia.

“The need for food is so bad that there is no need to debate it,” he said.

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