The fallout of Russia’s grain blockade

The alarm on Ahmed Karim Khalife’s phone is set for 6am, so the 22-year-old budding architect can join the queue that starts forming early outside his neighbourhood bakery in Beirut. The shop opens at about 7:30am, and nowadays, often runs out of bread by 9am, said Khalife.

“If I don’t wake up on time, my family might not get bread,” he said.

Lebanon’s grinding economic crisis has driven inflation up over the past three years, and the giant explosion at Beirut’s port in 2020 destroyed the country’s biggest grain silos, hobbling its ability to store wheat. Now, Russia’s unrelenting blockade of the Black Sea amid the war in Ukraine – where Lebanon imports more than 60 percent of its wheat – is deepening the Middle Eastern nation’s food crisis, upending the lives of families like Khalife’s.

The shuttering of Ukraine’s primary maritime gateway to the world is also turning Lebanon’s strife into a portent for what multiple wheat-importing nations might soon face, experts are warning. Moscow has accused Kyiv of mining the waters outside its ports to deter amphibious attacks, while Ukraine has, in turn, blamed Russia for placing the mines. To strangle Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, Russia has also parked warships outside ports that are still under the control of the government in Kyiv.

The result: By mid-May, 20 million tonnes of grain were stuck in Ukraine, the world’s fifth-largest wheat exporter. The European Union has pitched alternative “solidarity routes” over land. But these can at best offset a fraction of the volumes that would otherwise have travelled through the Black Sea, say analysts.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s piled-up grains could reach 75 million tonnes by the fall, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says – even as the United Nations has cautioned that 49 million people around the world could face famine-like conditions this year.

“If the blockade continues, the world will be in a very delicate situation on food security,” David Laborde, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute told Al Jazeera. “For countries that depend directly on Ukrainian wheat, it could be devastating.”

Like Lebanon, Somalia – where failed rains are already pushing 7 million people into crisis-level food insecurity – depends on Ukraine for a bulk of its wheat. But with Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, also struggling to export grains because of the sanctions it faces, multiple countries that count on the Eurasian giants for staples are also vulnerable to hunger, according to analysts. They include Benin, Egypt, Laos, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Senegal and Tanzania.

Time for a military option?

Some experts argue that it’s time to explore a military option to help ships break through the Russian blockade. “All that’s lacking is political will from the West,” Edward Lucas, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis said to Al Jazeera.

But other analysts view the prospects of a successful armed attempt at getting past Russian ships as bleak. “Physically breaking the Russian blockade would be very difficult, if not impossible to do,” said Marcus Faulkner, a senior war studies lecturer at King’s College London.

Ukraine has lost most of its major warships in the war, said Faulkner. The few that remain wouldn’t have “any chance against the Russian navy and border guard ships,” he said. That, in turn, means Western navies would need to play a leading role. “But that, if there is confrontation, would lead to a major escalation of the war,” Faulkner told Al Jazeera.

The mines in the Black Sea also mean shipping companies will not be willing to send their vessels close to vulnerable ports. “Moored mines can and do go adrift,” Faulkner said. Minesweeping across the shipping channels would be necessary before ships can safely traverse those waters, he added.

Alternate routes

Ukraine has started transporting some of its wheat through land routes across Poland to the Baltic Sea port of Gdansk, and cutting through Romania to the Black Sea port of Constanta, after which it is shipped to overseas markets. But exporting grain through these corridors is inefficient, and will at best make only “a dent” in the larger problem, said Lucas.

Trains and trucks can’t carry as much grain as ships can. According to the Kyiv School of Economics, Russian attacks have damaged 6,300km (3,914.6 miles) of Ukrainian rail tracks.

In addition, Ukraine’s train network is built on a Soviet gauge which is different from what the rest of Europe uses, said Siddharth Kaushal, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “They need to shift the grain at the borders each time, further complicating things,” he told Al Jazeera.

The longer Ukrainian wheat has to travel before reaching its markets, the more expensive it becomes for consumers, said Kaushal. Shipping Ukrainian grain by road or rail through the Polish port of Gdansk, for instance, adds 30 percent to costs, according to Atlantic Council research. For desperately poor countries like Somalia or economically pummeled nations like Lebanon, that is not easy to sustain.

“We’re numb to economic pain by now,” said Khalife in Beirut. “But even we have limits.” Lebanon’s annual inflation rate has consistently stayed above 200 percent throughout 2022.

Russia has suggested that it wants a relaxation in sanctions in order to lift the Black Sea blockade. It has also argued that the sanctions, which make insurance costs for ships prohibitive, are hurting Russia’s ability to export its own wheat, further limiting global supplies. Meanwhile, Kyiv has accused Moscow of stealing Ukrainian grain from territories under its control. “Russia is using food as a weapon,” said Faulkner.

The United States and Europe have so far rejected Russia’s demands for sanctions relief.

But with much of Ukraine’s grain unavailable for the foreseeable future, the world is just one adverse event away from calamitous food shortages that will not stay restricted to a few regions, according to experts.

India, which has banned wheat exports after a poor harvest, is the world’s largest rice exporter, followed by Thailand and Vietnam. “If there’s a bad monsoon in India or a hurricane that destroys crops in Southeast Asia, we’re in deep, deep trouble, with nothing to fall back on,” said Laborde.

Russia’s calculus might be even simpler, said Kaushal. The countries that depend most on Ukrainian wheat are also politically volatile. The longer the blockade continues, worsening food shortages in the Middle East and North Africa could spark a new migration crisis directly impacting Europe’s Mediterranean nations.

“That could make some countries want to stop the war at all costs,” he said. “It would test Europe’s unity, which is exactly what Moscow wants.”

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