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European officials have privately rejected the idea of rerouting Ukrainian grain exports via Belarus, The National has been told.
The task is becoming increasingly urgent as fears grow of a food crisis in Africa and Ukrainian farmers look to empty their warehouses of 20 million tonnes of unused grain before the next harvest.
An EU official said progress had been made in speeding up shipments over land to Poland, after Russia’s invasion brought exports to a standstill at Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
However, the Polish route is slowed by the fact that Ukraine’s former Soviet railways have a different gauge to the EU, meaning the track is wider and grain wagons must either be unloaded or fitted with new wheels at the border.
That problem does not apply to Belarus, another ex-Soviet republic, and its President Alexander Lukashenko has offered to transport grain through the landlocked country to ports on the Baltic Sea. The idea is also favoured by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But Belarus is a close Russian ally, under sanctions for its role in the invasion and for domestic repression, and Moscow and Minsk have both said these must be lifted in any agreement – a price the EU has not been willing to pay.
Options to salvage grain from Ukraine
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said grain exports “cannot be a smokescreen” for easing pressure on Mr Lukashenko, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell opposed any lifting of sanctions.
At talks between the EU, its member states, Ukrainian officials and industry insiders, “several stakeholders considered that the route via Belarus is currently not viable,” a European Commission official said.
The parties are instead “assessing the capacity of alternative transport routes from Ukraine into the EU, and how best to facilitate the transport of Ukrainian agricultural goods along these”, they said.
Rail exports to Poland have been hampered by red tape at the border of the EU’s single market as well as by the track problem, with transport commissioner Adina Valean complaining of convoys being held up for days.
Officials say progress has been made in recent weeks after Ukraine and Poland agreed to bring in round-the-clock border checks and increase the number of veterinary inspectors from three to 19.
The agreement allows for rail transit at three border crossings, Werchrata-Rava Ruska, Medyka-Shehyni and Kroscienko-Smolnica, along Poland’s 535-kilometre frontier with Ukraine.
Ukraine has established a second grain corridor with Romania, where goods can arrive by land or on barges up the River Danube and then be shipped from Black Sea ports such as Constanta.
An EU official said routes via landlocked Slovakia and Hungary, whose lack of coastline proved an obstacle to an oil embargo on Russia, were also under consideration. Slovakia said it was willing to help with short-term storage but that its capacity was limited.
Although the EU said last week that grain exports had risen to 2m tonnes a month, from 1.2m in April, Ukraine has said it unrealistic to shift the bulk of the unused food without reopening the Black Sea.
Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s biggest agricultural exporters, have blamed each other for the bottleneck – with Moscow accused of deliberately engineering a food crisis to gain leverage over vulnerable countries.
The head of the African Union recently told EU leaders that grain yields were poised to slump by between 20 and 50 per cent this year after fertiliser prices trebled in some places. Lebanon also relies on Ukrainian goods.
Ukraine said its second-largest grain terminal in Mykolaiv had caught fire after a Russian missile hit the port, burning for two days before it was extinguished. A workshop that repaired grain wagons was said to have been destroyed on June 5.
More than 50 members of the World Trade Organisation this week said they were “deeply concerned by numerous reports of grain being plundered from Ukraine”.
Russia denies pilfering grain and has blamed Ukrainian naval mines for the blockage, saying it would be willing to escort cargo ships if the Black Sea is cleared.
The UN is trying to broker an agreement and Turkey has offered to help, but Ukraine wants assurances from allies that opening a sea corridor will not leave its southern coast defenceless.