As Russia Strikes Ports, Ukraine Scrambles to Continue Grain Exports

Last week, Valentin Pavlenko loaded two trucks with grain from his farm in southern Ukraine. Normally, he sends them two hours east to the deepwater port of Odesa, but this time they headed in the other direction, to the small port of Reni on the Danube River.

He’s not the only grower looking for new shipping routes. The highway west from Odesa is clogged with eighteen-wheelers — hundreds, if not thousands, in a week; they are delivering grain to alternate distribution points, now that Russia has not only pulled out of a deal allowing unfettered passage for Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea but has also bombed Odesa and other ports that ring the city.

The high-stakes standoff over grain that is escalating tensions in the Black Sea and raising worries over the global food supply is also creating challenges for farmers across southern Ukraine. Not only must Mr. Pavlenko and others like him find different shipping points, they also have to worry about whether they are secure.

Mr. Pavlenko’s farm had already donated some of its trucks to the military. But when the Russians struck Reni, too, last week, the farmers’ collective he belongs to raced to collect money to buy three flatbed trucks for the Ukrainian Army, so it could install air defense systems to protect the Danube ports.

“We are going to fix up the pickups so that if they try to attack again, our boys can shoot them down,” said Mr. Pavlenko, 57.

But air defenses do not guarantee protection.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian forces intercepted 11 Russian drones attacking the Danube port of Izmail, south of Reni, according to Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command. Even so, the attacks damaged a grain elevator and silos, a shipping company office and a marine terminal, the office of the general prosecutor said. The Ukrainian Ministry of Infrastructure said 40,000 tons of grain had been destroyed at the port.

The assault demonstrated Russia’s willingness to keep striking Ukraine’s Danube ports, which are just across the river from Romania, a NATO member.

Agriculture is the lifeblood of Ukraine’s economy. Before the war, Ukraine produced half the sunflower oil sold worldwide and more than 10 percent of the wheat, barley and corn.

Under a deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey a year ago, more than 33 million tons of Ukrainian grain and other commodities were exported, including Mr. Pavlenko’s. Before the war, about 70 percent of Ukraine’s total imports and exports went by sea, nearly two-thirds through the ports around Odesa.

In the two weeks since Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal, Russian attacks have destroyed 180,000 tons of grain, 26 port infrastructure facilities and five civilian vessels, according to Ukraine’s foreign ministry. With the attacks on Izmail on Wednesday, that brings the total grain losses to around 220,000 tons.

“The grain deal was a kind of insurance, or security for this city,” said Oleksii Honcharenko, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament from Odesa. “Now, Putin is afraid that Ukraine’s grain corridors will work without him.”

The destroyed grain could have fed 810,000 people for a year, according to U.N. World Food Program calculations.

Since the attacks on the Black Sea ports, exporters have to turn to the more complicated and expensive Danube River. But its ports have a much smaller export capacity, creating frustrating and costly backups to load and offload grain.

Gennadiy Ivanov, the director of BPG Shipping, a Ukrainian shipping company that manages grain-carrying vessels, said there was currently a backlog of about 100 vessels in Ukraine’s Danube River ports, and congestion will likely only get worse if more infrastructure is attacked and damaged.

“By trying to destroy infrastructure in the Danube, Russia wants to get Ukraine out of the game completely,” Mr. Ivanov said in an interview. If more damage is done to the ports, he said, “the question is how many terminals can accept vessels.”

Insurance premiums to cover the risks for vessels operating at those ports are expected to rise, he said, and the costs will be borne by Ukrainian farmers already struggling to earn a living.

Another shipping executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns, said that his ship had been waiting for more than two weeks to load at the port and has to pay a congestion fee of $8,000 a day.

Despite the threat of Russian strikes, vessels have continued to load grain along the Danube, according to Alexis Ellender, a global analyst at Kpler, a commodities analytics firm — speaking before Wednesday’s attack at Izmail.

“They will try to maximize movement through the Danube because it’s more efficient to move by sea than by land,” he said. “But there will be capacity constraints in terms of what the ports can do.”

Since the Russian invasion in February last year, commodity exports via the Danube “have gone up 10 times,” Samantha Power, the chief administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said during a recent visit to Ukraine.

After investments, the ports now have a capacity of 2.5 million tons of agricultural goods per month, according to Alla Stoyanova, a regional agriculture official in Odesa.

That falls short of the 44 million tons Ukraine expects to harvest this year, but until recently the route had been considered relatively secure.

After the drone strike on Reni last week — which destroyed ​​2.5 tons of grain, damaged two hangars and injured seven people — farmers like Mr. Pavlenko are worried that even this backup route will be cut off.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Mr. Pavlenko took over a state collective farm covering nearly 4,000 acres and put everything he had into building a modern and profitable midsize farming business in the fertile region around Odesa. He shipped grain, beans, rapeseed and sunflower seeds to the world from the ports ringing Odesa, employing 40 people.

He wants to hand down his business to his sons, but said he feels its viability is at risk now, as farmers face increasing struggles to sell their food.

He already had to contend with rising prices for fuel, fertilizer and transport since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Now, he has to worry about whether his less profitable grain can reach the market at all.

“The ports are closed, there are almost no sales, and there is no free market in which good companies could give a good price because of all of the risks,” he said. “That’s why we’re selling the grains to buyers who offer any price. Our farm feels like it stopped being a business — now it is just work.”

The Kremlin’s pullout from the grain deal and attacks on critical infrastructure are evidence that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is “using food as a weapon of war,” said Ms. Power. Her agency is devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to renovating and expanding border checkpoints and infrastructure to help farmers export grain.

Ukraine itself is not short of food. The country produces five or six times more than it consumes, Ms. Stoyanova said.

But its economy is being strangled, and millions of people in developing countries could go hungry without access to the type of products sitting in Mr. Pavlenko’s storage. Some of the farmers nearby have already let their fields go fallow, but he said he and his family would try to continue.

“I don’t want to say it aloud, but there is a risk that we’ll just be forced to leave our land,” he said. “We don’t want to think about it, but the situation is tough.”

Dzvinka Pinchuk contributed reporting from Moloha, Ukraine, and Jenny Gross from London.

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