The Biden administration is working to get temporary storage containers for Ukrainian grain into the country, a stopgap measure as it seeks to mitigate a growing food crisis caused by Russia’s months-long blockade of Ukrainian ports, administration officials told CNN.
These storage containers – such as bags or boxes – could help salvage some of the more than 20 million tons of grain that are currently stuck inside Ukraine. They could also help Ukraine load the grain onto trains or trucks out of the country once overland routes are established, a senior administration official explained.
Still, as these efforts are underway the US and its international partners are no closer to finding a quick and absolute solution to lifting the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports that’s raised global food prices and threatened to cause a catastrophic food shortage in parts of the world.
The work that the US is doing to open up overland routes for the grain to get into neighboring countries, get containers into the country, and implement long-term changes meant to drive down global reliance on Ukrainian grain could collectively have an impact on the crisis. But many view the efforts as marginal fixes to a much larger problem that can’t be completely resolved until Russia eases its blockade, particularly of Ukraine’s biggest port in Odessa, which has been surrounded by Russian warships for months.
“From a practical perspective, the only option is still try and see how to unblock Odessa,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told CNN on Tuesday. “Every option should be explored and if possible, every option should be used … but unfortunately, without exploring and going forward with the Odessa option, I don’t think that there’s any other way.”
“If Russians don’t allow it, we need to, as a global community, we need to find a solution how to do it without Russian agreement,” Landsbergis said.
UN and Turkish officials are preparing for separate rounds of diplomatic talks with Moscow coalescing around a new plan to try to open up sea routes for Ukrainian grains, sources say.
Meanwhile, millions of tons of grain remain stuck in Ukraine, stored in silos and at the port in Odessa, leading to a dramatic spike in global food prices that’s likely to worsen as the war continues. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of corn and the fifth-largest exporter of wheat, according to the State Department, and the UN’s program to fight food insecurity buys about half of its wheat from Ukraine each year.
As CNN reported last week, Russia also appears to be ramping up its efforts to steal large quantities of Ukrainian grain.
The emphasis on finding a solution to getting the millions of tons of grain out by sea, despite the complications, is understandable: it would take an estimated five months by ship versus 18-24 months by rail, a European diplomat said.
And the clock is ticking, with the silos currently full and more grain on its way in the fall.
“In a way it’s going to get worse soon,” the diplomat said. “Nothing that exists solves the problem completely.”
US officials have hunted for alternative routes to export at least some of Ukraine’s harvest, including railing and trucking it through the western parts of the country and using sea ports outside of Ukraine. In addition to exploring options related to temporary storage supplies, they’re considering taking steps like teaching other countries how to use fertilizer more effectively so they can grow more agricultural products domestically in the long-term, administration officials said.
Addressing Russia’s blockade militarily would be a complicated task – and something that could risk escalation with Russia that the Biden administration has worked to avoid. US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters Tuesday that because the sea lanes “are blocked by mines and the Russian Navy,” opening them up to allow for exports “would be a high-risk military operation that would require significant levels of effort.”