Boats, trains, barges or Belarus: Four options to get grain out of Ukraine

Hunger crisis and looming Ukrainian harvest make it imperative to unblock the Black Sea

A vessel moored at the Izmail Sea Commercial Port in the waters of the Kiliia River estuary in Danube. Bloomberg
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Ukrainian farmers have grain they do not want. The world has millions of hungry people who do.

But moving 22 million tonnes of crops from A to B has become a logistical and geopolitical nightmare since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, prompting warnings of spiralling food costs and a looming global hunger crisis.

The clock is ticking as farmers wonder where they will store their next harvest, with fears that mountains of grain will go to waste if the Black Sea ports blockaded by warships and naval mines are not opened up by then.

Russia and the West blame each other for the crisis but opening up the shipping lanes could force them into an uneasy co-operation.

If that fails, moving grain inland is a possible but far from ideal alternative. Although exports have risen to about 2m tonnes a month, this solves only part of the problem.

As politicians consider their options, the World Food Programme said this week that 47m people were on the brink of acute hunger because of the war between two of the world’s “breadbaskets”.

“Millions of people may starve if Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea continues,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.

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Option one: Open the Black Sea

Pros: About 85 per cent of Ukraine’s pre-war exports went through the Black Sea, and some insiders have said there is simply no way of moving grain on a sufficient scale without reopening shipping lanes.

“We are doing everything possible, but this issue can be comprehensively resolved only by unblocking Ukrainian ports,” the country’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

The sea route also has the advantage that, once freighters escape the Black Sea, they can deliver grain directly to countries such as Lebanon and Tunisia that rely on imports from Ukraine.

UN negotiators are shuttling between Russia and other countries as they try to broker an agreement to export grain, while Turkey has said it is willing to mediate.

Cons: Ukraine says opening a naval corridor would leave a gap in its coastal defences, and does not believe Russia’s promises that it would pass up such an opportunity.

“We cannot trust Putin … his words are empty,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after the Russian president said his navy could ensure safe passage if mines are cleared.

One option would be for western powers to step in and protect the convoy. Nikolay Gorbachov, the president of the Ukrainian Grain Association, said that “if the US and UK navy stays in the Black Sea … security guarantees will be much higher than the word of a Russian officer”.

But Nato has so far refused to intervene directly because of the risk of a face-to-face confrontation with Russian forces. There is also the question of whether insurers would baulk at covering ships that brave the Black Sea.

Black Sea cargo ships usually handle the majority of Ukraine's food exports. Bloomberg

Option two: The grain train

Pros: Going by land avoids some of the problems of the Black Sea route and does not depend on coming to an understanding with Russia.

A 600-metre train can carry about 1,900 tonnes of grain, and exports to neighbouring countries such as Poland and Romania have already begun. Lorries are also an option, although their capacity is lower.

Moving grain into the European Union means friendly countries can help by prioritising railway slots and insuring nervous companies who send their wagons into Ukraine.

Once in safe territory, the rescued grain stocks can be shipped to the world from other Black Sea ports such as Constanta in Romania or Varna in Bulgaria.

Cons: The main problem is that Ukraine’s Soviet-era railways have a different gauge — the tracks are wider — than in EU neighbours such as Poland.

That causes frustrating delays at Ukraine’s borders, where wagons must either be unloaded or have their wheels changed in a time-consuming process that requires special machinery.

The delays are compounded by inefficient border checks which have led to goods being held up for as long as 10 days, EU ministers were told at a briefing by transport commissioner Adina Valean.

Beyond that, Ukraine’s roads and railways simply do not have the same capacity as seaports, and have come under attack from Russian missiles to foil arms deliveries from the West.

Ukrainian railways have been hit by Russian missiles and are not easily compatible with the EU network. AFP

Option three: Danube River barge

Pros: A river barge can carry more food than a train and avoids the problem of the different railway gauge.

The Danube flows from Romania to the region surrounding Odesa, the main blockaded port on the Black Sea, shortening the journey, compared with a train shipment to Poland.

This route has already been used to fill ships with 70,000 tonnes of cereals at a Romanian port, going at least some way to easing the crisis.

Cons: Like the railway network, inland waterways just cannot carry the same volume of grain as is usually exported via the Black Sea.

“If you do the maths, you will see that an astonishing 10,000 barges and almost 300 large ships are needed to carry 20 million tonnes of grains,” Ms Valean said.

There are not enough barges on the Danube to meet demand, and those that exist may be needed for Romanian produce once the harvest begins.

Russia last month attacked a vital bridge on the route to Romania after claiming that grain exports were being used to pay for weapons.

A barge floats to a fairway from a Danube  Black Sea Canal to Constanta trade port in Agigea village, Romania on 8 October 2019.(Evgeniy Maloletka/Bloomberg)

Option four: Go via Belarus

Pros: If it were not for political considerations, Belarus could be a suitable destination for Ukraine’s grain because they share the same ex-Soviet track gauge — solving the problem that applies to shipments via the EU.

Belarus has said it is willing to transport grain, and Mr Putin has described transit via Belarus as the easiest and cheapest solution.

Cons: Belarus is a close Kremlin ally, under sanctions for its role in the invasion as well as for domestic repression, and European leaders are deeply sceptical of seeking its help.

Russia and Belarus have named their price — the lifting of sanctions that were only recently tightened, and the export of Belarusian goods via the Black Sea — and there is little sign that the EU could stomach this.

Grain exports “cannot be a smokescreen for questioning measures that we put in place to counter the brutal dictatorship of Lukashenko”, said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, referring to the Belarusian president.

Another issue is that Belarus is landlocked and moving grain there solves only part of the problem, especially since it is the wrong direction from the Black Sea and the grain would have to travel a longer way round via the Baltic.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, is a close ally of Russia's Vladimir Putin. Reuters
Updated: July 22, 2022, 3:44 PM
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