Urgency mounts for US answer to Russian blockade

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy recently conveyed to Biden and, separately, to a group of US lawmakers visiting Kyiv late last month, that the next few weeks will be critical to keeping Odesa in Ukrainian hands, while limiting the depth of the growing global food crisis, according to two people familiar with the discussions. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading exporters of wheat and a particularly important supplier to the Middle East and Africa. But millions of tons of wheat, corn and sunflower oil have been locked in the country since Russia’s invasion and subsequent blockade. Ukrainian farmers are now preparing to harvest the crops they planted last winter, but will have no place to store them if they can’t ship existing crops overseas.

Adding to the urgency is Russia’s growing assault on Odessa, which lawmakers say is part of the reason they want to move rapidly to pass a new $40 billion Ukraine aid package to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and, ideally, help reestablish operations at the port.

“It’s gotta happen,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), one of the lawmakers who met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, said of reestablishing port operations and a route out of the current war zone in the Black Sea for ships carrying grain.

Crow said he talked with Zelenskyy about establishing a 20-mile buffer zone between Romania and Turkey that ships carrying grain could hug while avoiding Russian artillery. I have acknowledged, however, that it’s a huge undertaking.

Since the beginning of the invasion, the US has feared that Russian forces will try to take control of Odessa. US officials say Putin in the early weeks of the invasion appeared set on capturing the strategically located port city, which sits between Russian-annexed Crimea to the south and the Russian-supported breakaway region known as Transnistria.

Crow, a former Army ranger, said he’s discussed some of the significant challenges of resuming port operations with Zelenskyy and US officials. The Ukrainians need more weapons and diesel fuel to protect and operate the port. They also need help clearing the sea mines they put in place to protect the city from a Russian advance. But Ukraine doesn’t have the demining ships necessary for the job, Crow said — the US or another country would need to sail such a military ship through the Black Sea to Odessa, a move Russia would view as an escalatory act by itself.

And there’s another snag: Turkey has banned all military ships from entering the Black Sea following the invasion. So the US and Turkey would need to negotiate some sort of an agreement.

Crow dismissed calls for NATO to enforce a humanitarian corridor for the grain ships to navigate the Russian blockade, saying it presented similar issues to a no-fly zone over Ukraine that the Biden administration has resisted — likely requiring US and other Western military ships to escort the cargo in the Black Sea. It’s a precarious option given Russian forces’ presence in nearby Crimea, and could trigger a direct military confrontation. Crow said the United Nations and Red Cross would be in a better position to establish such a corridor, without military enforcement.

A US defense official said the Pentagon wasn’t preparing any plans for a NATO-enforced humanitarian corridor for grain.

Sen. jeanne shaheen (DN.H.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, acknowledged “NATO’s not been willing” to enforce sea humanitarian corridors to provide safe passage for ships carrying grain out of Ukraine. “I think there’s a greater likelihood that the UN would be willing to do that and that they would be better intermediaries than NATO,” she added.

Some fellow Democrats are doubtful that the Odesa port could resume operations for grain shipments in the next few months.

“Those ports are not going to be open if Russia continues what it’s doing,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said. “I just don’t see how. That’s a problem.”

But Crow said he still has hope a sea corridor could work, arguing there’s a narrow window to act and the US needs to do so while it still can. Crow previously told POLITICAL that in their meeting, Zelenskyy requested more anti-ship missiles, including Harpoons, to push back Russia’s military assault on Odessa via the Black Sea.

“They’re sitting now on 12 million tons of agricultural products from the last harvest that will spoil by this fall unless it’s shipped,” Crow said, noting that it didn’t include the upcoming summer wheat harvest. That harvest, surprisingly, is expected to be a potential bumper crop for Ukraine despite heavy fighting in parts of the country and Russia’s continued targeting of grain silos and theft of grain.

Lawmakers and international watchers argue the sea corridor is the only way to move enough food amid sky-high global food and shipping costs. A major part of Ukraine’s appeal as a grain producer is its proximity to the Middle East and North Africa, which cuts down on shipping time and cost.

US officials are especially worried about countries like Lebanon, which can only store one month’s worth of wheat after the 2020 Beirut port blast destroyed its key grain silos. Lebanon has relied on the seven-day travel time from Ukraine’s Black Sea coast to its Tripoli port to ensure that it would not run out of wheat, according to Michaël Tanchum, an associate senior policy fellow in the Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Even if Lebanon can secure grain shipments from other countries at the current sky-high costs, it might not arrive in time.

“The bottom line is, if those ports are not opened up, it’s going to devastate millions of people around the world,” David Beasley, who heads the World Food Program, said in an interview. Beasley was in Odessa in recent days and described the once-bustling port as “a ghost town.”

Beasley noted that even if Ukraine’s farmers can harvest a significant wheat crop this summer, they won’t have anywhere to store it unless the US and other countries help reestablish grain shipments from Odesa.

Sen. Chris Coon (D-Del.), one of the lawmakers pushing for a humanitarian corridor from Odesa, has also led the effort for Congress to approve new global food aid in the wake of Russia’s invasion, along with Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. Coons, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, is leading a subcommittee hearing on Wednesday where Beasley and others are set to testify on the need for the US to send more global food aid abroad, in an effort to avoid social unrest and political destabilization that’s unfolding across Sri Lanka, Peru and other countries amid protests over high food and fuel costs.

Unlike Crow, Coons suggested he could potentially support a NATO-enforced humanitarian corridor to escort grain charges from Odesa out of the Black Sea to hungry populations across Africa and the Middle East.

“I think it would just further heighten the brutality and inhumanity of the Russian aggression, if they prevent grain shipments from leaving Odesa,” Coons said.

Coons, a close ally of Biden, acknowledged the concerns about NATO involvement and said the US is trying to avoid a “Russia versus NATO” conflict.

“But if the United Nations authorized a humanitarian corridor and action to enforce it, I would expect that, if necessary, the naval resources would come from a number of countries in the region,” Coons said.

“Frankly, we’re at the beginning stages of that conversation,” he added.

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