ODESSA, UKRAINE — Russian blockades have effectively stopped grain exports from Ukraine’s ports, and the nation needs help from its allies to end Russia’s domination of the Black Sea, a spokesman for the Odessa military administration said in an interview with World Grain.
“The situation is very complicated,” said Sergey Bratchuk, through an interpreter, from his location in Odessa, Ukraine. “The ports are not working at all, they are blocked completely. Ukraine cannot export the grain that it has agreed to export before the beginning of the big war.”
Shortly after it invaded Ukraine at the end of February, Russia said that significant areas of the Black Sea were closed to commercial traffic. Since then, it has blocked safe passage to and from Ukraine by closing the Kerch Strait, tightening control of the Sea of Azov and stationing warships off Ukrainian ports. It also has set sea mines in the Black Sea and repeatedly has bombed infrastructure at the ports.
Ukraine is a major grain exporter, last year supplying 11% of the world’s wheat exports, 12% of corn exports and 43% of sunflower oil exports. With Ukrainian grain unable to move like normal, the United Nations has warned of a global food crisis.
Ports in Ukraine are partially damaged or destroyed, Bratchuk said, but those that are in partial working condition still cannot be used because of the blockade. One of the biggest grain terminals, Nika-Tera, in Mykolaiv, was destroyed just a few days ago, Bratchuk said. That terminal had capacity to store up to 500,000 tonnes of grain at a time and is equipped with three bulk loading machines.
In addition to some mines Ukraine used to block access to its ports from Russian warships, there are 400 to 600 mines that were spread out by Russia in the Black Sea as it moved toward Ukraine, Bratchuk said.
“Most of them were stolen by Russia when they occupied Crimea eight years ago,” he said. “Now they are using them to partially block Ukraine and partially to blame Ukraine if any other ships are hit by those mines, because they were owned by Ukraine before.”
Ukraine has its own professionals who know to remove the mines, but it will need help, Bratchuk said.
“We definitely need the help of other countries to remove those mines as soon as possible,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and equipment, and it is necessary for the safety of Ukrainian ports but also ports of Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
“We just need to win this war to solve this problem. After we win this war, we will be able to unblock our ports and clean out the sea of mines.”
Ukraine has found alternatives to move grain using a combination of railroad, truck and partially river, Bratchuk said. Still, the pace is much slower than typical. In May, monthly exports typically average 3 million tonnes but only reached 1.5 million tonnes this year, he said.
Moving grain by rail and truck presents some challenges, including limited trucking capacity and the need to reconfigure railcars at the border to fit a narrower gauge used in other countries.
“Unblocking of the Odessa port is the most important thing to reinvigorate exports,” Bratchuk said.
The backlog of Ukrainian grain will likely grow with harvest.
“Of course, harvest will be much less than last year because of the situation,” Bratchuk said. “It is unsafe to work on the fields in many regions of Ukraine. We will do the best to collect all the harvest that is possible.”
In addition to blocking the grain from export, Bratchuk said Russia is also stealing Ukrainian grain. On Monday, they received reports that Russia had stolen 11 railcars full of grain from a port and shipped it to Crimea. Since the early stages of the war, Russia has stolen grain from the occupied parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, he said.
“It is hard to say what volume is already stolen and what volume is being stolen right now,” Bratchuk said. “Only our intelligence can see their actions but there’s no real connection between occupied territories and Ukraine.”
When asked what Ukraine needs from the rest of the world, Bratchuk said the domination of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea needs to end and Ukraine needs weapons.
“Second, it needs to be (end) the blockage using an international partnership of NATO countries who can guarantee the safety of civil operations there,” he said. “We are an iron nation. We are still fighting, and we have a lot of work to do to win this war.”