Russia will only set up corridor for ships in Black Sea if sanctions eased: report

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said on Tuesday May 24th that the country was prepared to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine.

Russia’s foreign ministry previously said that if it were to heed a United Nations appeal to open access to Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, the removal of sanctions against Russia would also have to be considered. In reality there would appear to be  little chance of that happening.

“We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions,” Rudenko was quoted as saying.

“And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently accused Russia of using food as a weapon in Ukraine by holding global supplies hostage. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has accused Russia of “weaponizing” food supplies. Russia claims in response that it is the West that has triggered the food crisis by imposing a wide range of sanctions on Russia and Russian individuals.

Interfax news agency also reported that Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said that Russia would discuss the possibility of holding a prisoner exchange with Ukraine prisoners. He added it was premature to establish a Russian military base in the Russian-controlled area of Ukraine’s Kherson region.

Ukraine has as a matter of urgency been seeking ways to get grain and vegetable oils out of the country. There has been a blockade of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea by the Russian navy for three months. The alternative, moving the grain by land, faces considerable logistical hurdles.

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of the global wheat supply, mainly to the developing world but with knock-on effects globally. The seriousness of the situation has been compounded by an Indian export ban – blamed on the heat wave currently hitting the Asian sub-continent, as well as adverse crop weather in North America, South America and Western Europe.

Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn, barley, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil. Meanwhile,  Russia and Belarus account for over 40% of global exports of the crop nutrient potash.

Grain exports in Ukraine reached a value of $12.2bn in 2021, making up nearly 20% of the country’s exports. Before February 24th Ukraine exported 98% of its cereals and oilseed via the Black Sea, shifting up to 6m tonnes each month.

The blockade by sea meant that Ukraine was currently only exporting between 1m and 1.5m tonnes a month.

This has meant that nearly 25m tonnes of grain were stuck in Ukraine as of early May, with only a matter of weeks before the next harvest starts looking for silos in which to be stored. Up to 35% of Ukraine’s total storage capacity of 61 million tonnes could still be used up by the old 2021 crop by the time the new harvest comes in, according to research group APK-Inform.

The Ukrainian rail system operates on a different gauge to nearby European countries such as Poland, which means that the grain has to be transferred to different trains at the border – where there are few transfer or storage facilities.

A second export plan has been accelerated by Ukraine, whereby coastal vessels take the grain to Constanta, from where the grain is transported into Europe on the River Danube. But by mid-May only about 240,000 tonnes of grain had passed through Re-routing grain to Romania involves transport by rail to ports on the Danube river and loading cargoes onto barges for sailing towards Constanta – making the process complex and costly.

All of this means that the Russian statement that a “safe corridor” might be considered would be welcome news in many other parts of the world. It was Lithuania that first proposed the concept of “creating” a safe corridor under which countries such as Egypt sent their own ships into the area to pick up the grain – in effect defying the Russian Navy to fire on them.

However, the technical hurdles would have been great, not least the presence of mines in the region, and the implications of foreign vessels heading into Russian-controlled seaspace without Russian consent.

Rudenko was quoted by Interfax as saying that possible escort by Western ships of Ukraine’s vessels carrying grain would “seriously exacerbate the situation in the Black Sea”.

Insurance costs for any vessel braving these shipping lanes would also likely be very high.

Ukraine’s deputy economy minister Taras Kachka told Reuters last week that having “vessels of third countries in the area …would be an ideal situation.”

Meanwhile, an official in now Russia-controlled Mariupol has said that the first cargo ship would depart the port in the coming days. A Russian-backed official in the city said on Wednesday that the first ship to leave since pro-Russian forces completed their capture of the city would leave carrying around 3,000 tonnes of metals to Rostov-on-Don, a Russian port on the Black Sea.

Earlier, Russia’s defence ministry said that the port of Mariupol, a shallow-water harbour on the Azov Sea, was “operating normally”.