Plan to ship grain out of Ukraine dealt blow due to mines and russians ships blocking Ukraine’s Black Sea access

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has abruptly transformed the world. Millions of people have already fled. A new Iron Curtain is grinding into place. An economic war deepens, as the military conflict escalates, civilian casualties rise and evidence of horrific war crimes mounts. Millions of tons of grain are stuck in ports in Ukraine Negotiations to reopen ports are showing no signs of progress. Removing sea mines near Ukraine’s key ports could take months, and hundreds of seafarers are still stranded in the region following Russia’s invasion of the country, according to the United Nations agency responsible for shipping safety.

“Even if the ports wanted to reopen tomorrow it would take some time until ships could enter or depart,” Peter Adams, special advisor on maritime security at the International Maritime Organization, said in an interview. “Completely removing sea mines in the port areas would take several months.”

Russian ships have blocked Ukraine’s Black Sea access, essentially halting seaborne exports of staples from grains to chicken and worsening a global food crisis. Moscow has denied responsibility for the disruption, blaming Ukraine for refusing to remove mines protecting its harbors from possible Russian attacks. Efforts to reopen the ports are stumbling, with no sign of progress from Turkey’s efforts to broker a deal.
Ukraine Grains Shipments

The country’s top grain-handling ports are in the southwest. Freight and insurance costs spiked after several merchant ships were hit in the early days of Russia’s invasion, and some shipping companies are still avoiding the Black Sea. Three mines were detected free-floating in March, two off the coast of Turkey and one near Romania. In the northwest of the Black Sea near Ukraine, commercial ships have stopped operating, according to Adams. Some 450 foreign seafarers remain stranded on over 80 ships in Ukrainian ports, down from about 2,000, he said. A third are from the Philippines, with substantial numbers also from Turkey, Syria and Azerbaijan.

Still, most of the Black Sea is back to near normal shipping levels, aside from the northwest and the Sea of Azov, where Russian ships are mainly operating, he added. Ukraine lost access to the Sea of Azov after Russia occupied nearby territories.

Meanwhile, the number of Libyan-flagged vessels calling at Russian ports has increased since April 1 compared to the same period last year, while the number of Russian-flagged ships doing so has doubled, according to Braemar ACM Shipbroking Pte. Those vessels are able to take advantage of elevated freight rates since other ships won’t call at Russia, the company said.

Turkish offer to escort ships through Black Sea blockade would face six-month wait for mine clearance, says Ukraine. A plan mediated by Turkey amid a global food crisis to open shipping corridors out of Ukrainian ports has been dealt a blow as officials in Kyiv said it would take six months to clear the coast of Russian and Ukrainian mines. As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, arrived in Ankara on Tuesday, Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said in a statement that his government was making progress with the UN, Russia and Ukraine on reopening ports under Russian blockade in the Black Sea.

Ships leaving Ukrainian ports would be escorted by Turkish naval vessels under the proposal being discussed. The development appeared to offer some hope as the UN warned that the war in Ukraine – a world’s fourth biggest exporter of grain – was fuelling serious shortages of food around the world and pushing millions of people into famine. According to the UN, Russia and Ukraine supply about 40% of the wheat consumed in Africa, where prices have already risen by about 23%.

However, Markiyan Dmytrasevych, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of agrarian policy and food, said on Tuesday that even if Russia lifted its blockade, thousands of mines would remain floating around the port of Odesa, and elsewhere.

Dmytrasevych said that currently Ukraine was able to export a maximum of 2m tonnes of grain a month – compared with the 6m tonnes before the war – and that it would take until the end of the year to clear the mines.

“I think we reached the limit,” Dmytrasevych told participants at an International Grains Council conference. “The biggest amount we can export is about 2m tonnes a month.”

It is estimated that more than 20m tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine’s silos around Odesa due to a blockade of the port by Russian vessels. The country has faced severe capacity constraints when trying to export its grain by road, rail and river through Ukraine’s Danube ports.

Ukraine’s trade representative, Taras Kachka, said the EU needed to build warehouses and extend railway tracks across the Ukrainian border. Ukraine’s railway network has, like Russia’s, a slightly wider gauge, or distance between the two rails of a railway track, than its European neighbours such as Poland. As a result, grain transported by rail has to be unloaded and put on to different trains when it reaches the border.

“We are already using to the maximum the current possibilities for supply and it still very low, that is below 2m tonnes per month. In order to increase it we need to construct additional entry points to the EU, the additional lines [of railway] to cross the border, deeper into both markets,” he told the Guardian.

Kachka said Ukraine was already investing in extra grain storage facilities on its border with Poland, in the northern Volyn region and in the western Lviv region, and working on extending Ukrainian railway tracks into Poland, and vice versa, at several border crossings.

Turkey has offered Ukraine help to de-mine the coastal area but the government in Kyiv has not only warned of the scale of the task but is concerned that it could leave Odesa, among other key ports, open to attack.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Russian military would need to check commercial ships taking the grain to make sure they don’t carry weapons. He added that after they are loaded with grain, Russia would help escort the ships to international waters.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Tuesday that technical details were still being worked out.

“Our efforts are continuing concerning the technical planning on such issues as how it will be done, how the mines will be cleared, who will do it, how the corridor will be established and who will escort (ships),” Akar said.

Lavrov arrived in Turkey days after NATO members Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro reportedly refused to allow his plane to fly through their airspace to reach Serbia. Lavrov’s plane was able to fly directly to Turkey over the Black Sea.

Lavrov’s discussions in the Turkish capital are also expected to focus on Turkey’s plans to launch a new cross-border offensive in northern Syria against Syrian Kurdish militia that Ankara considers to be a security threat. Turkey needs Moscow’s approval to continue its presence in northern Syria, despite the two supporting opposite sides in Syria’s civil war. In 2020, 37 Turkish soldiers were killed in Russia-backed airstrikes against rebels in Syria’s last rebel-held Idlib province.

“Turkey really needs Russia’s blessing in order to be able to carry on this operation (in Syria.) And so I think they’re really going to try to get that kind of a concession out of the Russian side,” said Merve Tahiroglu, Turkey program coordinator at Project on Middle East Democracy.

Lavrov’s meeting also comes as Turkey — a NATO member — has voiced opposition to Sweden and Finland’s bids to join the alliance. Moscow has also objected to the Nordic countries’ candidacy — which analyst say may play a role in discussions concerning Syria.

The Ukrainian journalist Muslim Umerow challenged the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, over accusations that Russia is stealing from Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, president of Ukraine, said in an interview with the Financial Times that while he supported the Turkish initiative, he would need assurances that Russian vessels would not be allowed to use the safe corridors.

The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday that the Kremlin also had its own conditions, as he offered Moscow’s guarded support for the proposed safe corridors. “This will allow ships, once checked by our military to make sure they are not carrying any weapons, to enter the ports, load grain and with our help, proceed to international waters,” he said.

Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the Russian-occupied ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol had already resumed their operations. “The de-mining of Mariupol’s port has been completed,” Shoigu said during an appearance on Russian television. “It is functioning normally and has received its first cargo ships.”
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The Russian claims over the ports at Mariupol and Berdiansk could not be independently verified, and at a UN security council meeting on Monday evening in New York, the European Council president, Charles Michel, accused Russia of using food supplies as “a stealth missile against developing countries”.

Michel said Russian forces had stolen grain from occupied Ukrainian territories “while shifting the blame to others,” calling this behaviour “cowardly” and “propaganda, pure and simple”. His comments prompted the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, to walk out.

Victoria Prentis, the UK’s farming ministers told an International Grains Council (IGC) conference in London on Tuesday that she had heard the allegations of grain theft by Russia, describing them as very serious.

Meanwhile, on a visit to Lithuania, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said his government was ready to increase its military presence in the Baltic region in response to the war in Ukraine. “We have agreed to strengthen the eastern flank of Nato by creating a new strong brigade here,” he said.

Lithuania borders Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave where the Kremlin’s Baltic Sea fleet is based. A brigade is comprised of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers.

Scholz also promised to continue supplies of necessary weapons, and troops’ training to Ukraine. He dismissed claims that Germany was hesitating with supplies of heavy weaponry, including most modern howitzers.

He said: “We have far-reaching sanctions now that will set back the Russian economy by decades. That means it will not be able to participate in global economic and technological progress. We know from reports that this means that Russia will not even be able to retain its military capacities at the same level.”

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