Biden races against time to unlock Ukraine’s trapped grain

“At the end of the day, at the moment, we just have to cross the border as much as possible,” said a US official, referring to potential storage facilities in Poland and other neighboring countries.

The Biden administration and its European allies have been working for weeks to build the European Union’s “Solidarity Lanes,” a patchwork of ad hoc land routes for trains and trucks from Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of ship most of the grain to Romanian seaports. , so that it can reach fragile countries in Africa and the Middle East plagued by food shortages and severe drought. But for now they are trying to prevent it from being stolen by Russian forces or spoiling in makeshift containers inside Ukraine as the fighting continues.

Ukrainian officials warn that the storage problem will only get worse with the summer harvest. As Biden made his remarks on the silo plans this week, Ukraine’s Deputy Food Minister Markiyan Dmytrasevych warned members of the European Parliament that his country will run out of 10-15 million tonnes of grain storage from here October.

“That’s why we urgently need to set up temporary grain warehouses,” Dmytrasevych told EU lawmakers.

The EU’s Maja Bakran said on Wednesday that the EU cooperates with “like-minded international partners, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada [and] Japan”, to increase land exports. “They have welcomed the solidarity pathways and are certainly helping with the implementation,” she said.

The EU hopes that its land plan can help increase exports by several million tonnes per month. Ukrainian officials also said this week that they were working to create more storage capacity in the country. They currently export only a fraction of the 5-6 million tons of grain per month that are normally exported through Ukrainian seaports during its summer wheat harvest, which begins in just a few weeks.

“Everyone wants to help, we just don’t know how. If we could teleport [of the grain] that would help a lot,” an EU official said.

There are still huge logistical problems to be solved, a second US official said of the land plans. Biggest hurdle: Overland routes require exponentially more time and money to operate than shipping grain through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports. Biden, in remarks earlier this week, noted that rail gauges between Ukraine and Poland do not match, so grain must be unloaded from railcars and transferred to new rail lines at the border. The silos aim to speed up this laborious process.

“The sea route is obviously the best and most efficient route, but it’s also the most problematic because you have to have permission from Russia,” US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. an interview Friday after meetings on food security at the United Nations earlier this month. the week. “In a sense, you have to have Russia’s agreement. And what is the cost and price of this?

Vilsack noted the challenges of overland routes with the different rail systems, “which is why the president suggested at least having the grain transported to temporary storage facilities in Poland.”

The UN continues to hold talks with Russia on reopening access to the Black Sea to ship Ukrainian goods. But US officials are skeptical of the outcome of the talks, given Moscow’s demand for sanctions relief in exchange for the partial lifting of its blockade. Vilsack said he discussed the Black Sea efforts during a meeting with UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, who is leading the UN negotiations.

“I told him that I continue to have reservations and concerns about whether Russia is really approaching these negotiations in good faith,” Vilsack said.

Turkish officials have signaled their openness to act as a security guarantee for Ukrainian grain exports against Russian attacks in the Black Sea, but European officials say Kyiv is currently not open to Turkish plans or another alternative which involves shipping grain through Belarus, which fought alongside Russia during the war, as both options likely require sanctions relief. European officials are also considering trying to increase exports through Ukraine’s Danube ports, but this is expensive and would only move part of the volume.

Vilsack announced this week that the United States would also partner with Ukraine to “rebuild and strengthen Ukraine’s agricultural sector,” a key part of the country’s economy. He said increased transparency on agricultural production and other data from Ukraine could help reduce foreign countries introducing food export restrictions as well as market speculation that has helped to rise in commodity and food prices since the invasion of Russia.

Biden told a virtual gathering of nations at the Major Economics Forum on Friday that “with Russia’s war driving up inflation around the world, threatening vulnerable countries with severe food shortages, we must work together to mitigate the immediate fallout. of this crisis”.

Garrett Downs, Hanne Cokelaere and Christopher Miller contributed to this report.

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