With millions of tons of grain stuck in Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Europe”, a global food crisis looms.
Ukraine is the world’s fifth-largest exporter of wheat, and the third largest of both corn and maize.
But Vladimir Putin’s blockade of the Black Sea has left grain sitting in silos and the United Nations warning of disaster.
The head of the UN World Food Programme, which gets half its wheat from Ukraine, warned on Monday that 49 million people in 43 countries, across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, are “knocking on starvation’s door right now”.
In the past 95 per cent of the vital foodstuffs exported by Ukraine have left by sea.
Speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian President, said Kyiv is talking to neighbouring countries about using their ports, and getting it there by train or truck.
He is also consulting with allies about the possibility of setting up a safe maritime corridor to get grain out.
But none of the options are easy.
Rail and the ‘Stephenson gauge’ problem
There are 13 rail border crossings between Ukraine and European nations.
Of those, four lead to Poland, three to Romania, and two each to Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova.
In theory, up to 50,000 tons of grain per day could be accommodated at these crossings.
However, Kyiv is at the mercy of rail gauges.
European railways mostly use the standard gauge of 1,435mm, also known as the “Stephenson gauge” after George Stephenson, the 19th Century “Father of Railways”.
Ukraine’s railways use the Russian 1,520mm gauge.
The difference means goods have to somehow be transferred at the borders as they head west.
But there is a lack of the equipment necessary to lift the Ukrainian wagons on to undercarriages that are the right gauge.
So, grain has to be unloaded and reloaded at borders, a process which takes days.
European countries also do not have enough locomotives and grain cars to deal with a sudden surge in goods arriving from Ukraine.
The Romanian rail crossings, and one of the Polish ones, are already at capacity.
And Moldova’s railways have weight limits which are half those of Ukraine.
Customs paperwork is also complicated, with each rail car needing its own clearance.
It all means the average waiting time for Ukrainian grain entering the European Union by rail is 16 days. Sometimes, it takes up to 30 days.
The railways of Lithuania and Latvia operate on the same gauge as Ukraine, and have offered their ports to ship the grain to other continents.
But to get to those countries the grain would have to go through Poland, which is standard-gauge.
So, it would end up having to be unloaded and reloaded twice, once at the Ukraine-Poland border, and then entering Lithuania or Latvia.
On Sunday, Ukraine and Poland announced they were setting up joint customs controls at the border, and a shared railway company.
Mr Zelensky called it “revolutionary” and said he hoped it would “significantly speed up border procedures”.
Taking to the road
Moving the grain by road would take a colossal logistical effort.
A Western diplomat said the current amount of grain stuck in Ukraine is around 20 million tons, and moving it by road would not be feasible.
According to one calculation transporting 1.2 million tons of grain per month would require 10,000 trucks and 20,000 drivers to operate them around the clock.
Special permissions are under consideration to allow more Ukrainian and Moldovan truckers to enter the European Union quickly.
But Ukraine is already suffering from a shortage of diesel which would be needed to run the army of trucks.
There are also doubts over whether the road infrastructure, not just in Ukraine, but in neighbouring countries, could cope.
There have been calls for a safe corridor for grain ships to leave the Black Sea.
Turkey is trying to act as a mediator with Putin to make it happen.
Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish Foreign Minister, said last week: “In concertation with the UN, we are working to create a safe conduct for Ukrainian boats transporting grain.”
However, Francois Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said it would need broad support for a UN resolution to force the Kremlin to allow it.
He said the countries that should be pressing for a corridor were the big grain importers in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
There have been suggestions the grain convoys could be escorted by Naval vessels in an operation organised by Nato, or a “coalition of the willing”.
That could include military ships from counties most affected by the food crisis.
But a Western diplomat said: “We’d need to have an agreement [from Putin].”
In the unlikely event that agreement was forthcoming, there would still be the issue of mines to deal with.
Captain Eric Lavault, the French Navy spokesman, said: “Currently there is very little maritime traffic in the Black Sea, in part because mines have been found.
“We don’t know the mine maps. It’s not clear what’s been done in Odesa, so we’d have to send in an anti-mine force.
“That could take days or even weeks. It’s like building a road, so that boats can get past each other, and zones for parking, and you have to clear all of them.”
Bust the blockade
The only realistic option is somehow ending the Russian blockade.
Mr Zelensky has pleaded for weapons to sink Russian ships, or at least scare them away.
On Monday, the Pentagon announced that Denmark would be the first nation to send Harpoon long-range anti-ship missiles to Ukraine.
Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, said: “I’m especially grateful to Denmark, which announced today that it will provide a Harpoon launcher and missiles to help Ukraine defend its coast.”
The sea-skimming missiles have a range of almost 300km.
US officials had been in talks with allies about who would send them.
But there had been some reluctance to go first amid concerns Russia could retaliate against whichever nation did.The US-made Harpoons represent a significant extension of Ukraine’s potential to hit the Russian ships.
Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said they would “hold at risk high-value Russian ships attacking Ukraine from the Black Sea or elsewhere.”
He added: “This is an important and measured step to increase the Ukrainians’ capability and operational intensity against the Russians.”
Ukraine’s own Neptune anti-ship missiles are believed to be in short supply.
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