Breaking the Ukrainian grain blockade could intensify international involvement

The fertile regions of Ukraine have long been known as “the breadbasket of the world”. The Russian blockade prevents nearly 300 ships from transporting grain exports through the Black Sea, leaving one of the world’s main trade routes virtually closed.

The Black Sea is bordered by Ukraine to the north, Turkey to the south, Russia and Georgia to the east, Turkey and Bulgaria and Romania to the west. Ukraine has had some notable maritime successes since hostilities began with Russia in February this year, but the Kremlin continues to remain more powerful in the northern Black Sea and has blocked Ukrainian ports.

To further complicate the problem, Russia bombed bridges, preventing Ukrainian grain from moving across land. Around Ukraine, farmers navigate mines, cross bombed-out bridges and risk falling into overcrowded ports, patriotically circumventing Russian blockades to transport desperately needed grain.

Ukraine is the world’s fifth largest wheat exporter. Analysts say less than half of Ukraine’s crop will likely be exported this year, causing food inflation; making shortages much worse than they already are in heavily dependent countries. Earlier this month, the executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme, David Beasley, warned that hunger and death for millions of people around the world will occur with Ukrainian ports blocked.

Ukraine’s badly damaged and strained infrastructure will not be able to handle the 30 million metric tons of corn, wheat and sunflower oil expected from this year’s harvest, the Ukrainian government has said. In addition, regular agricultural cycles for harvesting, planting and fertilizing have been disrupted.

German Development Minister Svenja Schulze lambasted Putin over the food crisis during a recent trip to Ukraine, calling on Russia to allow delivery of tens of thousands of tons of grain stuck in Ukrainian ports. “It’s Putin’s fault that many countries are now on the brink of widespread starvation,” Schulze said, referring to grain stuck in Ukrainian ports and Russian-occupied Ukraine.

The effect of war on commodity markets

In recent weeks, the war has inflicted a major shock on commodity markets. The latest World Bank Commodity Markets Outlook discusses the disruption in production and trade of several Russian and Ukrainian commodities, including fertilizers and grains. With the prices of various grains rising more than 50%, runaway futures are adding to a previously tight commodity market due to pandemic-related supply and demand constraints.

However, wheat prices have fallen 10% since voices from the G7 at the United Nations began increasing pressure on Moscow to let Ukrainian grain come to market. Commodity traders are betting Russian President Vladimir Putin will listen to mounting pressure against the blockade.

Putin’s response: Buy Russian

Putin offers several solutions for the West. First, buy grain from Russia (grain probably stolen from the occupied territories of Ukraine). According to the TASS news agency on Monday, Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Kherson region has started exporting grain harvested last year to Russia. “…we have a lot of grain here. People are now partially withdrawing it, having agreed with those who buy it from the Russian side,” said Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the military-civilian administration.

The second solution is for Moscow to provide a corridor for ships carrying food in exchange for the lifting of certain Western sanctions. This solution is based on the statements of Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko during the negotiations between Turkey, Ukraine and Russia last week.

Either solution is not acceptable to the West. As world leaders search for a solution, proposals for a naval “coalition of the willing” to lift the Russian blockade on Ukrainian grain have begun. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis proposes the creation of a naval mission involving the naval coalition to protect Ukrainian ships from Russian missiles, allowing the movement of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea.

With military ships and aircraft required to provide ship movement, there are many potential ramifications. Most scenarios include NATO and the United States aiding and delving deeper into the conflict. The Lithuanian minister has already said that the Coalition of the Willing will demand countries with significant naval power to protect shipping lanes. Landsbergis’ proposal was met with caution by the UK, with its foreign secretary saying the UK could potentially send naval convoys.

Breaking the blockade of the Black Sea is clearly envisaged. But action by NATO members would also be a clear escalation of their current involvement. But with the global breadbasket under attack, it may be the grain, not the guns, that drives more countries to lend support or act.