US grapples with Russian blockade endangering global food supply


Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy recently told Biden and, separately, a group of US lawmakers visiting Kyiv late last month that the next few weeks will be critical to keeping Odessa in Ukrainian hands, while limiting the depth of the growing global food crisis, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading wheat exporters and a particularly important supplier to the Middle East and Africa. But millions of tonnes of wheat, corn and sunflower oil have been stuck in the country since the Russian invasion and subsequent blockade. Ukrainian farmers are now preparing to harvest crops they planted last winter, but will have no place to store them if they cannot ship existing crops overseas.

Russia’s growing assault on Odessa adds to the urgency, which lawmakers say is part of the reason they want to move quickly to pass a new $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and, ideally, help restore operations in the port.

“It has to happen,” Rep. Jason Raven (D-Colo.), one of the lawmakers who met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, spoke about restoring port operations and a route out of the current Black Sea war zone for ships carrying grain.

Crow said he discussed with Zelenskyy establishing a 20-mile buffer zone between Romania and Turkey that grain-carrying ships could embrace while avoiding Russian artillery. He acknowledged, however, that it’s a huge undertaking.

Since the beginning of the invasion, the United States has feared that Russian forces will try to take control of Odessa. US officials said Putin, in the first weeks of the invasion, seemed determined to capture the strategically located port city, located between Russia-annexed Crimea to the south and the Russian-backed breakaway region known as Transnistria.

Crow, a former Army ranger, said he discussed some of the significant challenges of resuming port operations with Zelenskyy and U.S. officials. The Ukrainians need more weapons and diesel fuel to protect and operate the port. They also need help clearing the sea mines they planted to protect the city from a Russian advance. But Ukraine doesn’t have the demining ships needed for the job, Crow said – the United States or another country would need to sail such a military vessel across the Black Sea to Odessa, a decision which Russia would consider an act of escalation in itself.

And there is another catch: Turkey banned all military ships from entering the Black Sea after the invasion. The United States and Turkey should therefore negotiate some sort of agreement.

Crow rejected calls for NATO to impose a humanitarian corridor allowing grain ships to navigate the Russian blockade, saying it presented similar problems to a no-fly zone over Ukraine to which the The Biden administration resisted — likely forcing the United States and other Western military vessels to escort the cargo to the Black Sea. It is a precarious option given the presence of Russian forces in neighboring Crimea, and could trigger a direct military confrontation. Crow said the United Nations and the Red Cross would be in a better position to establish such a corridor, without military enforcement.

A US defense official said the Pentagon was not preparing any plans for a NATO-mandated humanitarian grain corridor.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (DN.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, acknowledged that “NATO was not willing” to impose maritime humanitarian corridors to ensure safe passage for ships carrying grain out of Ukraine. “I think there’s a better chance that the UN is willing to do that and is a better broker than NATO,” she added.

Some fellow Democrats doubt that the port of Odessa will be able to resume grain shipping operations in the coming months.

“These ports will not be open if Russia continues what it is doing,” the senator said. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “I just don’t see how. It is a problem.”

But Crow said he still had hope a sea corridor could work, saying there was a narrow window to act and the United States needed to do so while it still could. Crow previously told POLITICO that during their meeting, Zelenskyy requested more anti-ship missiles, including harpoons, to repel the Russian military assault on Odessa via the Black Sea.

“They are now sitting on 12 million tonnes of last crop agricultural produce that will spoil this fall unless it is shipped,” Crow said, noting that this did not include the upcoming wheat crop from summer. This harvest, surprisingly, should be a potential bumper crop for Ukraine despite heavy fighting in parts of the country and Russia’s continued targeting of grain silos and grain theft.

Lawmakers and international observers say the sea corridor is the only way to transport enough food amid sky-high global food and shipping costs. Much of Ukraine’s appeal as a grain producer is its proximity to the Middle East and North Africa, which reduces shipping times and costs.

US officials are particularly worried about countries like Lebanon, which can only store a month’s worth of wheat after the 2020 Beirut port explosion destroyed its main grain silos. Lebanon relied on the seven-day travel time from Ukraine’s Black Sea coast to its port of Tripoli to ensure there was no shortage of wheat, according to Michaël Tanchum, associate senior policy researcher at the Africa Program. of the European Foreign Affairs Council. Relations and non-resident researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Even if Lebanon can secure grain shipments from other countries at current exorbitant costs, it might not arrive in time.

“At the end of the day, if these ports aren’t open, it’s going to devastate millions of people around the world,” David Beasley, who heads the World Food Programme, said in an interview. Beasley had been in Odessa for the past few days and described the once-bustling port as “a ghost town“.

Beasley noted that even if Ukrainian farmers can harvest a large wheat crop this summer, they will have nowhere to store it unless the United States and other countries help restore grain shipments from ‘Odessa.

Sen. Chris Coon (D-Del.), one of the lawmakers calling for a humanitarian corridor from Odessa, also led congressional efforts to approve new global food aid in the wake of the Russian invasion, alongside the Republican senator. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina. Coons, who sits on the foreign relations committee, is leading a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday where Beasley and others are to testify about the need for the United States to send more global food aid overseas , with the aim of avoiding social unrest and political destabilization. is taking place across Sri Lanka, Peru and other countries amid protests over high food and fuel prices.

Unlike Crow, Coons suggested he could potentially support a NATO-mandated humanitarian corridor to escort grain shipments from Odessa out of the Black Sea to starving populations across Africa and the Middle East.

“I think it would only increase the brutality and inhumanity of Russian aggression, if they stop grain shipments from leaving Odessa,” Coons said.

Coons, a close ally of Biden, acknowledged concerns about NATO involvement and said the United States was trying to avoid a “Russia vs. NATO” conflict.

“But if the United Nations were to authorize a humanitarian corridor and measures to enforce it, I would expect that, if necessary, naval resources would come from a number of countries in the region,” Coons said.

“Frankly, we are at the beginning of this conversation,” he added.


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