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Here’s How to Help Ukraine Handle Putin’s Food Blockade

Creative storage and transport of the new harvest can undercut Russia’s weaponization of global hunger.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and , a leading research fellow at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting.
Anti-tank obstacles are shown on a wheat field in southern Ukraine's Mykolaiv region on June 11.
Anti-tank obstacles are shown on a wheat field in southern Ukraine's Mykolaiv region on June 11.
Anti-tank obstacles are shown on a wheat field in southern Ukraine's Mykolaiv region on June 11. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

In a few short weeks, the summer harvest in Ukraine will be in full swing. Despite Russia’s war, scorched-earth strategy, and destructive occupation of Ukraine, as much as 70 percent of Ukraine’s grain-planting happened as planned. As the war rages on, military and economic support for Ukraine remains essential. But the global food crisis precipitated by the war also calls for energetic efforts by the international community to get as much of the harvest as possible to market—and some creative solutions for storing the rest.

Before the war, around 90 percent of that grain left Ukraine by ship, much of it through the Ukrainian Black Sea ports of Odesa, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv. But Russia’s occupation and near-complete destruction of Mariupol, shelling of Mykolaiv from the nearby front, and continued blockade of Odesa mean the grain—on which Ukrainian livelihoods and stomachs in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the world depend—cannot be shipped to market.

The world has long been familiar with the concept of a proxy war, where the real opponent is not the one on the battlefield. What Russian President Vladimir Putin is perpetrating in Ukraine is a proxy siege: Nominally, it’s the Ukrainian farmers who are hemmed in, but the impact will be felt in other parts of the world in the form of rising food prices and shortages, especially in less developed countries where people spend a larger share of smaller incomes on food.

In a few short weeks, the summer harvest in Ukraine will be in full swing. Despite Russia’s war, scorched-earth strategy, and destructive occupation of Ukraine, as much as 70 percent of Ukraine’s grain-planting happened as planned. As the war rages on, military and economic support for Ukraine remains essential. But the global food crisis precipitated by the war also calls for energetic efforts by the international community to get as much of the harvest as possible to market—and some creative solutions for storing the rest.

Before the war, around 90 percent of that grain left Ukraine by ship, much of it through the Ukrainian Black Sea ports of Odesa, Mariupol, and Mykolaiv. But Russia’s occupation and near-complete destruction of Mariupol, shelling of Mykolaiv from the nearby front, and continued blockade of Odesa mean the grain—on which Ukrainian livelihoods and stomachs in Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of the world depend—cannot be shipped to market.

The world has long been familiar with the concept of a proxy war, where the real opponent is not the one on the battlefield. What Russian President Vladimir Putin is perpetrating in Ukraine is a proxy siege: Nominally, it’s the Ukrainian farmers who are hemmed in, but the impact will be felt in other parts of the world in the form of rising food prices and shortages, especially in less developed countries where people spend a larger share of smaller incomes on food.

What’s worse: Not only is Russia effectively blockading the Black Sea shipment of this year’s harvest but much of last year’s harvest remains in storage facilities—approximately 20 million tons of grain is awaiting export, and until it moves, there will be no place to put this year’s harvest. Moreover, Russia has been bombing Ukrainian grain storage facilities intentionally, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the United Nations Security Council in late March, which has diminished overall storage capacity. A new report from the Kyiv School of Economics assessing war losses shows that Russian attacks have destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars of storage infrastructure and more than half a billion dollars of agricultural products awaiting shipment. In just one of many recent examples, a Russian rocket attack on Mykolaiv’s port this month destroyed sunflower meal waiting for export.

Gdansk and Constantia weren’t built to export the entire harvest of the world’s secondlargest grain exporter.

There are efforts to move some of the grain overland, but these have been marred by obstacles and complications. The railway gauge is not the same in Ukraine and its western neighbors, making train deliveries onerous and inefficient. As for trucks, it helps to put things in perspective. Even if it produces about one-third less grain this year than in 2021, Ukraine should still have about 35 million tons of new grain for export. According to the deputy mayor of Odesa, the average bulk freighter leaving the city’s port used to carry 40,000 metric tons. But a truck only carries about 25 tons—meaning it would take about 1,600 trucks to replace a single ship and roughly 1.4 million trucks to transport this year’s entire diminished harvest. And even if overland transport for onward shipment from neighboring Poland and Romania could be organized, those ports face their own bottlenecks, including limited capacity that would take years to expand. Gdansk and Constantia weren’t built to export the entire harvest of the world’s second-largest grain exporter.

With the harvest fast approaching, there is no realistic scenario for ending Russia’s blockade. International efforts to negotiate safe sea corridors for food exports face both logistical and political hurdles—not least Putin’s embrace of the global food shortage as a weapon. Using Western military vessels to escort freighters—or even forcibly break the blockade—is a no-go as well, since the United States and NATO have explicitly ruled out a direct confrontation with Russia. Ukraine and the countries around the world who depend on its food exports therefore need to buy time. There is little appetite to build new capacity to mill wheat into flour (or press sunflower seeds into oil) in Ukraine, which might be a way to transport the same food in a way that takes up less volume. No one wants to build factories when Russia is blowing them up. And although U.S. President Joe Biden announced last week that the United States will support building storage capacity in Poland near the Ukrainian border, this infrastructure will take too long to build to help with this year’s harvest. Even once the facilities are completed, according to the Polish minister of agriculture, they would address less than a third of Ukraine’s storage needs, in part because of the overland transport challenges.

That doesn’t mean the new facilities Biden announced shouldn’t go ahead; they should. There are no silver bullets to search for here. But there is also an opportunity to mount an international effort to quickly build and deploy, in Ukraine, micro- and mobile storage capacity for this year’s grain harvest so the food the country’s farmers have managed to grow even in the middle of a war can be exported later. Although that grain may be stranded temporarily, the knowledge that it is waiting to be brought to market will likely have a positive effect on reducing food prices on the global market, especially for future deliveries.

There are several practical solutions that could be scaled up. Ukrainian farmers and agriculture companies have already started to expand the use of silo bags—which are exactly what the name implies: enormous weatherproof sheaths of polymer plastic that can be used to store thousands of tons of grain on site. Mobile storage and temporary warehouses, which can be easily assembled and quickly installed, have been part of United Nations World Food Program pilot plans in recent years and should be rapidly deployed in Ukraine. And, wherever feasible, completing conventional silos already planned or in progress should be fast tracked.

In essence, the European Union and other members of the G-7, working with Ukraine, should launch an international effort to save Ukraine’s grain, support global food security, and break Putin’s proxy siege. It needs the urgency, determination, and creativity of the Berlin airlift—except instead of bringing supplies in, it will be ensuring they can eventually get out. This will require both resources and coordination. Working with the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as well as national agencies and the World Food Program, the EU and G-7 should aim to provide favorable financing and grants to support the rapid scaling of storage. Ukrainian agricultural companies, on their own, do not have access to enough fast capital.

But money is only one piece of the puzzle. The other is coordination: Production of silo bags and mobile and temporary warehouses should be accelerated wherever possible—including in Ukraine, where there is at least one silo bag factory. But national governments should also work with agriculture ministries to identify existing mobile storage capacity that could be used as well as inventories of machinery that could be sold, given, or loaned to Ukrainian farmers to help them get their harvest into storage. Silo bags, for example, work with special equipment to load and unload grain.

These tactics for storing the grain close to where it is grown could be a valuable stopgap that doesn’t require immediate transit. Because these storage solutions are so small, they would not create big new targets for Russian bombs and missiles as Putin seeks to exacerbate the global food shortage in his effort to ratchet up pressure on the West to sue for peace and stop supporting Ukraine.

Ukraine can feed the world—but Putin is intent on using his proxy siege to accelerate a global food crisis that will hit the world’s poor hard, with the hopes of upping the pressure on Ukraine and its partners. It’s an immoral tactic. The West should redouble its efforts to facilitate exports by land wherever trains and trucks are a viable alternative. And it should buy time by deploying temporary solutions to the storage deficit.

Daniel B. Baer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. Twitter: @danbbaer

Oleksandra Betliy is an economist, a leading research fellow at the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting, and a former advisor to the Ukrainian finance minister. Twitter: @OBetliy

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