EU steps up effort to bring millions of tons of grain out of Ukraine

European leaders will intensify efforts to get food out of Ukraine by land as a Russian blockade of the country’s ports threatens tens of millions of people across the world with starvation.

An EU summit finishing on Tuesday will pledge to improve attempts to find an alternative to bring out millions of tons of grain over the next three months and free Ukraine’s warehouse for the coming harvest, according to draft conclusions seen by the Financial Times.

Dozens of countries rely on cereals from Ukraine, mostly exported via its Black Sea ports, which are now either in Russian hands or blockaded by warships.

Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has said he will only allow grain ships to leave the port of Odesa if the EU lifts the sanctions it imposed after his invasion of Ukraine three months ago. Russia wants the EU to lift its ban on Russian ships entering the bloc’s ports, an EU diplomat said.

Kyiv needs to export 20mn tons of grain in the next three months or some crops will rot with nowhere to store them after August’s harvest. In April, just 1.2mn tons were exported.

EU diplomats in Ukraine say only about 5mn tons of grain can be transported in that timeframe without the Black Sea route. It throws the fate of the 30m tons Ukraine plans to harvest this year into question.

Ukraine produces 12 per cent of the world’s wheat, 15 per cent of its corn and 50 per cent of its sunflower oil.

“We will discuss concrete ways to help Ukraine export its agricultural produce using EU infrastructure,” Charles Michel, president of the European Council, told leaders in a letter inviting them to this week’s summit.

The EU announced on May 12 a plan to take up to 4mn tons of grain out of Ukraine a month through neighbor countries.

But Brussels accepts that the challenges are huge. Attempts to boost rail transport are hindered by Ukraine’s Soviet-era gauges, which are wider than those used in the EU so train chassis have to be changed before the trains can run in the bloc. Brussels has launched a plea to member states to provide equipment to do the transfer as well as rolling stock, trucks, drivers and barges.

A total of 467 wagons can be handled per day at the eight railway border crossings with Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

Poland is reluctant to build a Soviet-gauge railway route to Lithuania, bypassing Belarus. A proposed plan to run the shipments to Lithuania through Belarus is politically unpalatable in Ukraine after Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s strongman leader, allowed Russia to use the country as a base of operations for the invasion

Adina Vălean, the EU’s transport commissioner, last week also instructed the bloc’s agriculture ministers to speed up border crossings, which are subject to huge tailbacks.

There were “shocking examples of entire convoys being delayed for four days or sometimes even 10 days for one missing certificate for types of cargo where such certificates were not even required at the destination”, she said. “We are also asking the member states to increase inspection capacity at border posts to deal with arrivals 24/7.”

EU diplomats said freight networks were already congested, meaning trains were moving slowly. Private companies are reluctant to send trucks into Ukraine as they cannot get insurance and could be bombed by Russian forces

Barges can take grain up the Danube to Romania, for onward shipment from the port of Constanta, although Russia has bombed this route in the past. But Vălean earlier this month outlined the scale of the challenge, referring to a seagoing grain carrier that left Constanta with 70,000 tons.

“To fill it to capacity, a combination of 49 barges and trains was used. One 600m train can carry around 1,900 tons of grain. A convoy of six barges, which is how the grain traveled from Ukraine’s Danube ports, can carry a maximum of 18,000 tons.”

Many believe the EU plan is simply undeliverable. David Beasley, head of the UN World Food Programme, told the FT’s Rachman Review podcast that trucks could handle only 1mn tonnes a month.

“Twenty-six countries get 50 per cent or more of their grain from Ukraine or Russia,” he said, including Egypt, Lebanon and Senegal. With 49mn people people threatened with famine, “we are taking food from the hungry children to give to the starving children”.

Michel has invited Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, to join the summit remotely on Tuesday. The European Commission has said Russian propaganda has told Africans that the EU, rather than Moscow, is responsible for spiraling prices and food shortages because of its sanctions.

Putin said on Monday that Russia was ready to facilitate the shipment of grain out of blockaded Ukrainian ports in coordination with Turkey, the Kremlin said in a statement.

“Vladimir Putin noted the readiness of the Russian side to facilitate unimpeded maritime transit of cargo in coordination with our Turkish partners. This also applies to the export of grain from Ukrainian ports,” the Kremlin said, summarising a phone call with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president.

Russia has demanded that some sanctions against it be lifted before it will increase its own export of agricultural products and fertilisers.

Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Kyiv and Polina Ivanova in London