Russia stepped up missile attacks on Odesa last week, raising fresh concerns about the security of the port.

Russia stepped up missile attacks on Odesa last week, raising fresh concerns about the security of the port. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations appealed to Russia to free up sea export routes for Ukrainian grain and agricultural products critical to feeding the world, as food prices rise and the World Food Program warns of “catastrophic” consequences if Ukrainian ports remain blocked.

“We must not be naive. Russia has now expanded the war against Ukraine to many states as a war of grain,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a news conference Saturday after the G-7 meetings. “It is not collateral damage, it is an instrument in a hybrid war that is intended to weaken cohesion against Russia’s war.”

Baerbock, who hosted the three-day gathering of top diplomats in Weissenhaus, Germany, said the group was searching for alternative routes to transport grain out of Ukraine as the threat of a global hunger crisis mounts.

Up to 50 million people will face hunger in the coming months unless Ukrainian grain is released, Baerbock said, according to the Associated Press. About 28 million tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports blockaded by Russian forces.

As the conflict in Ukraine grinds on, some countries have looked to India as an alternative grain source. But after making moves to expand its agricultural export industry, India on Friday banned wheat exports, citing its own food security concerns.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, it has all but captured the port city of Mariupol, where Russian forces have surrounded the last remaining Ukrainian fighters holed up in the Azovstal steel plant.

Russia has also taken control of the Kherson region on the Black Sea and fired missiles at the major port city of Odesa, which remains under Ukrainian control. Ukraine closed its ports in late February amid the fighting, and Russian warships and floating mines have prevented them from reopening.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday that such a halt to port operations had likely not been seen in Ukraine since World War II. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Friday that Ukraine was willing to take part in talks with Russia to unblock grain supplies but that his government had received “no positive feedback” from officials in Moscow, the AP reported.

David Beasley, head of the United Nations World Food Program, spoke with U.S. lawmakers and Biden administration officials in Washington this week to emphasize the urgency of reopening the ports and addressing the global food crisis.

Ukraine grows enough food to feed 400 million people annually, and 30% of the world’s supply of wheat comes from Russia and Ukraine, according to the World Food Program.

“The ports are critical to food security globally,” Beasley told The Washington Post. “It will be catastrophic if we don’t have those ports opened up and moving food supplies around the world.”

On an average working day, some 3,000 train carloads of grain arrive at Ukrainian ports, where they are stored in silos and, in peacetime, shipped across the Black Sea and through the Bosporus and then around the world, Beasley said. With exports blocked, the silos are full — meaning there is no place to store grain from the next harvest, due to take place in July and August.

The impact of the blockage will be felt in both rich and poor countries, Beasley said, and it is already affecting market volatility. The war has driven prices of wheat, cooking oil and other commodities to record highs, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected global wheat supplies would fall next crop year.

Countries in the Middle East and Africa are especially reliant on Ukrainian grain. Egypt gets between 75 and 85 percent of its wheat supply from Ukraine and Russia, according to U.N. statistics. More than 60 percent of wheat imported by Lebanon comes from Ukraine. Somalia and Benin depend on Russia and Ukraine for all of their imported wheat.

The U.N. has warned that food insecurity could exacerbate existing conflicts and economic crises in these regions.

Operational costs for the World Food Program to assist the same number of people have increased by more than $70 million per month due in part to rising food prices, Beasley said. The program, which provides food aid to 125 million people on any given day, will have to further scale back rations. In Yemen, which has experienced an acute hunger crisis for years, the program has already halved the food rations of 8 million people.

“We’re running out of money, pricing is killing us, we’re billions short and we’re now having to decide which children eat, which children don’t eat, which children live, which children die. It’s not right,” Beasley said.

The World Food Program, which buys half of its wheat from Ukraine, has asked Congress for $5 billion in additional international food assistance. An emergency funding package for Ukraine that contains that aid passed the House on Tuesday night but a vote in the Senate was pushed to next week.

Russia stepped up missile attacks on Odesa this week, raising fresh concerns about the security of the port. In a statement on Saturday, G-7 foreign ministers called on Russia to “cease immediately its attacks on key transport infrastructure in Ukraine, including ports.”

Beasley, who visited Odesa this month as the city came under attack, said it was encouraging that Russian attacks have not targeted actual port infrastructure there so far.

Russia, also a major grain producer and the world’s leading wheat exporter, stands to gain from continuing to disrupt Ukraine’s exports. The G-7 ministers pledged Saturday that sanctions against Russia would not “target essential exports of food and agricultural inputs to developing countries.”

The G-7 consists of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. The countries also promised to ramp up their contributions to the World Food Program and other relief organizations.

Ukraine has also accused Russia of intentionally attacking Ukrainian grain facilities and stealing grain from occupied regions for export. A State Department spokesperson confirmed to The Post that Russian attacks had damaged at least six grain storage facilities in eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Beasley said he is “calling every friend I know that has any influence with Russia” to urge Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow the resumption of grain shipments from Ukraine.

The G-7 ministers said Saturday they were seeking other options to get Ukrainian grain to countries in need, including the establishment of “agricultural solidarity lanes.” The European Commission laid out a plan on Thursday to create such transport corridors, which would ease ground shipments of Ukrainian grain to Europe.

Trucks and trains can only carry a fraction of the grain that typically ships out of Ukraine’s ports, Beasley said. And Russia continues to attack train lines and transportation infrastructure across Ukraine. But Baerbock said Saturday that “every ton we can get out will help a bit to get to grips with this hunger crisis,” the Financial Times reported.

“In the situation we’re in, every week counts,” Baerbock said.

The Washington Post’s Victoria Bisset and John Hudson contributed to this report.

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