A plan mediated by Turkey amid a global food crisis to open shipping corridors out of Ukrainian ports has been dealt a blow as officials in Kyiv said it would take six months to clear the coast of Russian and Ukrainian mines.
Turkey’s defence minister, Hulusi Akar, said in a statement released on Tuesday that his government was making progress with the UN, Russia and Ukraine on reopening ports under Russian blockade in the Black Sea. The ships leaving Ukrainian ports would be given safe escort by Turkish naval vessels under the plan.
The development appeared to offer some hope as the UN warned that the war in Ukraine – a major exporter of grain – was fuelling crippling shortages of food around the world and pushing millions of people into famine. However, Ukraine’s first deputy minister of agrarian policy and food, Taras Vysotskyi, responded that even if Russia lifted its blockade, thousands of mines would remain floating off the port of Odesa and elsewhere.
Vysotskyi said that Ukraine was able to export a maximum of 2m tonnes of grain a month – compared with the 6m tonnes before the war – and that it would take until the end of the year to clear the mines.
“I think we reached the limit,” Vysotskyi told participants at an International Grains Council conference. “The biggest amount we can export is about 2m tonnes a month.”
It is estimated that more than 20m tonnes of grain are stuck in Ukraine’s silos. The country has faced severe capacity constraints while trying to export its grain by road, river and rail.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Tuesday that it was the responsibility of Ukraine’s government to clear the coastal waters of mines in order to allow the resumption of exports. “This will allow ships, once checked by our military, to make sure they are not carrying any weapons, to enter the ports, load grain and with our help, proceed to international waters,” he said.
Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the Russian occupied ports of Berdiansk and Mariupol had already resumed their operations. “The de-mining of Mariupol’s port has been completed,” Shoigu said during an appearance on Russian television. “It is functioning normally and has received its first cargo ships.”
The Russian claims could not be independently verified, and at a UN security council meeting on Monday evening in New York, the European Council president, Charles Michel, accused Russia of using food supplies as “a stealth missile against developing countries”.
Michel said Russian forces had stolen grain from occupied Ukrainian territories “while shifting the blame to others,” calling this behaviour “cowardly” and “propaganda, pure and simple”. His comments prompted the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, to walk out.
Meanwhile, on a visit to Lithuania, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said his government was ready to increase its military presence in the Baltic region in response to the war in Ukraine. “We have agreed to strengthen the eastern flank of Nato by creating a new strong brigade here,” he said.
Lithuania borders Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave where the Kremlin’s Baltic Sea fleet is based. A brigade is comprised of 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers.
Scholz also promised to continue supplies of necessary weapons, and troops’ training to Ukraine. He dismissed claims that Germany was hesitating with supplies of heavy weaponry, including most modern howitzers.
He said: “We have far-reaching sanctions now that will set back the Russian economy by decades. That means it will not be able to participate in global economic and technological progress. We know from reports that this means that Russia will not even be able to retain its military capacities at the same level.”
Gitanas Nausėda, Lithuania’s president, welcomed Scholz’s comments, saying the Russian military threat would “remain a major source of threat to regional security”.