“It’s obvious blackmail”, was indignant the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kouleba, Wednesday, reacting to the words of Russia on the risks of a world food crisis. Ukraine, a major exporter of cereals, especially corn and wheat, is seeing its production blocked due to the fighting. Since the invasion of the country, millions of tons of cereals have indeed been waiting in the ports of the Black Sea, blocked by the Russian army, which Westerners and kyiv condemn. But for its part, Moscow assures that these blockages are the consequence of the sanctions taken against it by the European Union and the United States. Five packages of repressive measures have indeed already been adopted by the Twenty-Seven who are now trying to agree on an embargo on Russian oil.
According to Vladimir Putin, “the difficulties that have arisen are linked, among other things, to disruptions in the functioning of production and logistics chains, as well as to the financial policy of Western countries during the coronavirus pandemic”. “The situation has worsened due to the anti-Russian restrictions imposed by the United States and the European Union”added the Russian president who spoke on Thursday with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.
The two leaders called each other, on the initiative of the Italian head of government. A conversation during which Russia said “ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizer, subject to the lifting of politically motivated restrictions by the West”, according to a statement from the Kremlin. Russia, another cereal power – with Ukraine, the two countries produce a third of the world’s wheat – cannot sell its production and its fertilizers because of these sanctions which affect the financial and logistics sectors.
This is not the first time that Moscow has made the resumption of grain transit conditional on the lifting of sanctions against Russia. Western countries “must cancel these illegal decisions which hinder the freight of ships, which hinder the export of cereals”, explained the spokesman for the Russian presidency, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday. The day before, a senior Russian diplomat, Andrei Roudenko, had also affirmed that the resolution of the crisis would require the lifting of sanctions against Moscow and “demining by Kyiv” Black Sea ports. According to him, Moscow is then ready to provide “humanitarian corridors” so that ships can export.
A “Russian blackmail”
Remarks which caused a strong reaction on the Ukrainian side which denounced a “Russian blackmail”. “You can’t find a better example of blackmail in international relations. If someone accepts it, then that person has a problem”, blasted Dmytro Kouleba at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
To Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby accused Russia of “using food as a weapon”. “And we are obviously in discussions with (…) our international partners and allies on how best to respond to all of this.”, he assured. Accusations that are “unfounded”, replied Vladimir Putin.
In the United Kingdom, the British Minister of Defense on Wednesday called on Russia to “stop stealing” cereals produced by Ukraine and to let this country export them, while ruling out a lifting of sanctions requested by Moscow to avoid a global food crisis.
“I call on Russia to do the right thing in the spirit of humanity and let the grain out of Ukraine,” Ben Wallace told a press conference in Madrid with his Spanish counterpart, Margarita Robles.
“Let’s not talk about sanctions, let’s talk about doing what is right for nations around the world,” he added.
“A collaboration between Russia and Ukraine” possible
If the Russian position has aroused an outcry from Western countries, Mario Draghi has shown himself to be more favorable to the idea of a “collaboration between Russia and Ukraine”. The head of the Italian government thus declared during a press conference at the end of his exchange with Vladimir Putin that “The purpose of this phone call was to ask if anything could be done to unblock the wheat that is today in storage in Ukraine.” He suggested a “collaboration between Russia and Ukraine on the unblocking of Black Sea ports” where is this wheat, which is in danger of rotting, “on the one hand to clear these ports and on the other hand to ensure that there are no skirmishes during the clearance”. Mario Draghi also indicated that there was, on the Russian side, “a readiness to continue in this direction”and whom he would call Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “to see if there is a similar will”. “When I am asked if I have seen any glimmers of hope for peace, the answer is no”however, concluded the Italian Prime Minister.
Germany sets up a “railway bridge”
To help kyiv export its grain, which is accumulating in Ukraine because of the maritime blockade imposed by Russia, Germany has set up a “railway bridge” with Ukraine.
“We believe there are about 22 million tonnes of grain stuck in Ukraine, waiting to be shipped,” General Cavoli told congressional officials.
The Romanian port of Constanta is taking part in the effort but its capacities are limited to 90,000 tons per day, explained the general, whose appointment as head of the American forces, and therefore of the NATO forces, must still be confirmed by the Congress.
“But Deutsche Bahn recently answered the call,” he added. “They set up what they call the Berlin Rail Bridge, modeled after the Berlin Airlift, to dedicate trains to transporting Ukrainian wheat to Western Europe.”
The German railway company “is extracting massive amounts of grain from Ukraine at the moment, via Poland to northern German ports for export,” he said. “Poland has established a new border regime with Germany to facilitate” this operation, he said.
The production that transits to Constanta is shipped by sea to the Black Sea, “but not to the part of the Black Sea under Russian blockade”, he said.
“I think we will have to combine modes of transport” to continue to facilitate Ukrainian grain exports, he concluded.