Against the background of an emerging hunger crisis in Africa, the EU Commission is calling on the western community of states to do more with grain exports from Ukraine. “I’ll say it again: We can’t just rely on Ukraine’s neighbors to get the job done, and that’s why any kind of help is useful,” Adina Valean, the EU Commissioner for Transport, told WELT.
The background to Valean’s appeal is that after Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the blockade of Ukrainian ports, the country’s own grain can no longer reach its destination by sea. Ukraine is considered one of the largest breadbaskets in the world. The blockade threatens famine in Africa.
Many things have moved in the right direction since last month, the EU Commissioner explained. According to the Ukrainian government, according to Adina Valean, in May 1.7 million tons of grain were moved by alternative transport routes by land, rail or water – the EU Commission calls them “solidarity corridors” – and in June even 2.5 million tons. “But there is still room for improvement – the rail vehicles are not sufficient, we have too few drivers for barges, the transporters need insurance and guarantees, and there are not enough temporary storage facilities for the grain.”
Poland and Romania, but also Moldova, did valuable work. Valean: “Romania and Poland, the two neighboring countries with the largest influx of goods from Ukraine, have their border checkpoints open 24 hours a day, every day. They also simplified controls and hired more people.”
In mid-May, Valean had demanded: “20 million tons of grain must leave Ukraine within less than three months using EU infrastructure. This is a gigantic challenge”. According to the latest estimates by the Polish government, however, this is unrealistic. There is too little progress in logistics solutions, said Poland’s Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk on Tuesday this week.
The problem is that only a fraction of the quantities that otherwise leave the Ukraine by ship can be transported overland. This is made more difficult, among other things, by the different track widths of trains in the EU and in the Eastern European country. Valean puts the problem in a nutshell: “While a large ship can be loaded with 70,000 tons of grain, a 600 meter long freight train transports around 1900 tons and a barge up to 3000 tons. A truck can only do 25 tons – a drop in the ocean – but even that one drop is important in these circumstances.”
The chairman of the Ukrainian railway company UZ, Oleksandr Kamyshin, told the online portal “Politico” (like WELT belongs to Axel Springer, ed.) three weeks ago that his team could “transport up to five million tons within a month”. However, export opportunities are severely restricted by legal hurdles and capacity problems on the roads and in ports.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj, up to 25 million tons of grain are currently stockpiled in Ukraine. In autumn, after the summer harvest, it could even be 75 million tons. All attempts by the United Nations (UN) and Turkey to come to an agreement with Russia on safe sea routes have so far failed. The Russian Navy blocks Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea. That is why roads, rails and rivers remain the only alternative to the sea route.
The EU Commission has set up “contact points” to coordinate western supply of freight wagons, ships and trucks and demand from Ukraine at a single point of contact. According to Politico, only 50 grain wagons had arrived from the west at the beginning of June, while Ukraine already has 28,000 wagons.
Valea sees another problem: “Rethinking the logistics chains and opening up new routes is not easy. Firstly, the actors involved who are involved and need to be coordinated by the EU are very diverse: traders, logistic companies, producers, transporters, regional and national authorities. We need to sync all this. Second, the infrastructure is not designed to accommodate such significant amounts of cargo.”