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ConflictsMiddle East

Ukraine: No smooth sailing for grain via the Black Sea

Thomas Latschan
August 13, 2022

In July, Moscow and Kyiv agreed to a grain corridor to allow Ukraine to resume its exports of grain. But a variety of issues continue to hinder the process. Meanwhile, the price of bread is rising around the world.

A ship in the Black Sea near Istanbul
The Razoni was headed for Lebanon Image: Lokman Akkaya/AA/picture alliance

There is a shortage of bread in Lebanon and when it is available, it is very expensive. For weeks, people have been having to queue for hours at bakeries. Despite state subsidies, a package of six flatbreads officially costs 13,000 Lebanese pounds (ca. €8.50 or $8.80). On the black market, it often goes for at least twice that.

There had been a glimmer of hope when it was reported that the Razoni, the first ship to set off from Ukraine after Moscow and Kyiv struck their deallast month to establish a grain corridor, was on its way to Lebanon. However, before arriving at its destination in Tripoli, the second-largest city in the country, the ship was turned away with 26,000 tons of grain. The official explanation is that the buyer no longer wanted the cargo because it was five months too late.

Furthermore, the president of the Food Import Association of Lebanon, Hani Bushali, told German news agency DPA that the country needed wheat, not corn. It appears that the corn was originally intended as animal feed.

After the original buyer refused to take possession of the cargo, the Razoni lingered in the Mediterranean for a few days before another buyer was found in Turkey.

Crowds at a bakery in Beirut, Lebanon
Across the Middle East, people are becoming more desperate as the price of food rises. This crowd gathered in front of a bakery in Beirut, trying to buy bread.Image: Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS

Difficult implementation of Black Sea Grain Initiative

Though it is true that corn can be processed into food for humans, in many countries it is wheat that is the number one staple food. Despite this several of the subsequent ships that left Ukraine were loaded with corn or sunflower meal.

The Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) set up by the UN to facilitate the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative did not respond to an inquiry by DW as to why this was the case. In its FAQs about the initiative, the UN states: "The shipping companies decide on the movement of their vessels based on commercial activity and procedures. The Joint Coordination Centre in Istanbul authorizes the movement of vessels in and out of the Black Sea based on the requests it receives from the Ukrainian port authorities."

Only some of the shipments are intended for the UN World Food Program to alleviate hunger around the world, but the JCC has no say in where the rest of the grain should be delivered. Turkey, Britain, Ireland and South Korea are just some of the possible destinations.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a briefing this week that these were "commercial transactions" and it was only normal that the ships "go where the contract stipulates that they go." 

Time-consuming inspection process in Istanbul

So far, only 12 vessels have left Ukraine. But there are an estimated 22 million tons of wheat in storage, waiting to be exported. There are several reasons for the sluggish pace. For one, Ukrainian ports are only operating at a fraction of their pre-war capacity. Then, there is the time-consuming inspection process in Turkey. When ships arrive in or leave Istanbul, they are checked to ensure that they are not carrying smuggled weapons or stolen grain.

Another problem is that there are not enough ships, as many insurance companies are reluctant to guarantee shipments through a conflict zone. Shipping companies that used to operate in the Black Sea are having to find other routes. Therefore, only a fraction of the grain that is in storage in Ukraine can be exported for the moment.

Where is Ukrainian grain needed most urgently?

Ukraine accuses Russia of smuggling grain

There have also been delays to exports because of accusations by Ukraine that Russia is plundering grain. According to allegations by the Ukrainian embassy in Beirut, the Syrian-flagged Laodicea, which had docked in Tripoli, was carrying 10,000 of stolen Ukrainian grain. The ship was detained until it could be established that the grain had not been stolen.

According to official papers, the ship had set out from Port Kavkaz in the Kerch Strait — not far from Crimea, which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014. Ships from this port are not covered by sanctions and do not fall into the jurisdiction of the JCC in Istanbul.

However, according to the Reuters news agency, open-source information that it has verified suggested that this port "can only accept ships with a maximum draught of five meters." The agency said that the Ukrainian embassy had pointed out that the Russian cargo manifest stated that the Laodicea had a maximum draft of eight meters. That would mean it had to have come from a different port. 

The Laodicea ship in Tripoli, Lebanon
The Syrian-flagged Laodicea was delayed for days after suspicions it was carrying stolen grainImage: picture alliance/AP

The embassy also presented satellite imagery to the Beirut authorities that indicated that the ship had actually arrived empty in the port of Feodosia in Crimea and left with a heavy cargo.

Syria is main buyer of grain on Russian ships

It would seem that this is not an isolated case. In June, the British Financial Times daily published an article that used satellite imagery to identify at least eight vessels that had seemingly been loaded with grain, not in Russia, but in the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

It also said that there had apparently been more activity at Port Kavkaz since the Russian invasion in February.

International freighters are obligated to provide their position constantly via transponder trackers. However, in the Black Sea, it appears that Russian ships often have their transponders switched off. The Financial Times suggested that the ships might have loaded a small amount of legal Russian grain in Port Kavkas and then combined that with stolen grain at a Crimean port. If this were the case, experts say that it would be extremely difficult to track whether the grain originally came from Ukrainian farms.

Often, the Russian ships carrying grain are headed for ports in the Near and Middle East, for example Iran, Egypt or Libya. There is such an urgent demand for grain that authorities often do not question where it is from. The main purchaser remains Syria, however, which has received at least 90,000 tons of grain since February. Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A ship full of grain being inspected near Istanbul
There are reportedly 22 million tons of grain still in storage in Ukraine, waiting to be exportedImage: TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY/ REUTERS

This article was originally written in German.