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The EU considers activating a naval mission to free Ukraine’s agricultural exports | International

The European summit next Monday in Brussels will address the growing risk of famine in countries dependent on agricultural exports from Ukraine, blocked by Russia after the invasion of the country on February 24. The EU is ready to mobilize all possible resources to facilitate the exit of grain accumulated in Ukrainian silos and ports. And on the table is even the possibility of launching a naval mission to escort the passage of freighters from Ukraine through a Black Sea infested with mines and guarded by Russian ships and submarines.

By landway. Or river. Or even maritime. The European Union considers it essential to remove as soon as possible the thousands of tons of corn, barley and, above all, wheat, blocked in Ukrainian territory for three months. The draft of the summit’s conclusions, to which EL PAÍS has had access, “strongly condemns the destruction and illegal appropriation of Ukraine’s agricultural production by Russia.” And he asks Moscow to “end the blockade of Ukrainian ports and allow the export of food, in particular from Odessa”.

But the operations designed to export all this product by rail through Poland or by river to the Romanian port of Constanta are not giving the expected result. And Brussels is now considering, according to community sources, the launch of a naval mission derived from the common security and defense policy to ensure that the grain leaves directly from the Ukrainian city of Odessa, the port on the Black Sea that channeled most of the export until the beginning of the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The naval operation to remove the Ukrainian grain would pose an extreme risk of possible military friction or clash with the Russian Navy. But Brussels watches with almost the same dread the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis in countries whose most basic food needs depend on Ukrainian exports. The President of the Italian Government, Mario Draghi, telephoned Putin on Thursday and the Ukrainian President, Volodímir Zelenski, on Friday, to explore the possibility of an agreement between the two parties that would allow the demining of Ukrainian ports and the exit of the grain. But Putin attributes the problem to European sanctions and Draghi has warned that a food crisis “of gigantic proportions and terrible human consequences” is looming.

According to data from the European Commission, Tunisia imports 53% of its wheat from Ukraine; Libya, 44%; and Egypt, 26%. In India and Pakistan, which add up to almost 1.7 billion inhabitants, dependence on Ukrainian wheat is almost 50%. The shortage of grain in all these countries could unleash, in addition to a famine, an economic and social crisis that would lead to migratory waves destined to arrive in Europe sooner or later.

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Until the outbreak of the war, Ukraine exported an annual average of 18 million tons of wheat, 24 million tons of corn or almost five million tons of barley, according to figures from the International Grains Council, an intergovernmental organization that promotes the stability of the world market. of grains The sudden stoppage of Ukrainian exports, blocked by the Russian Navy, has endangered the stability of that market and the food security of part of the planet.

unprecedented risk

“The debate on a mission of the common security and defense policy is inevitable,” says a community source. The EU currently has 18 operational missions of this type around the world, some of them naval, such as the one that monitors compliance with the arms embargo on Libya in the Mediterranean or the one that combats piracy in the Indian Ocean against the Somali coast. But all the sources consulted acknowledge that an operation in the Black Sea poses an unprecedented risk for European forces.

Workers in a sunflower field in the Odessa region on May 22.
Workers in a sunflower field in the Odessa region on May 22. Genya Savilov (AFP)

The first difficulty, of a diplomatic nature, would be to clear the passage of European ships to the port of Odessa. Since 1936, the entry into the Black Sea of ​​warships from non-riparian countries has been regulated and limited by the Montreux Convention. That international agreement gives the key to the straits of entry to the Government of Turkey.

The government of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has supported the UN resolutions that demand that Moscow end the aggression against Ukraine. But Turkey is the only NATO country that has distanced itself from the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin by the EU and the US. And it has not hesitated to set conditions to admit the entry of Finland and Sweden into the Atlantic Alliance, two historically neutral countries. alarmed by the return of war to the European continent.

Even so, “Turkey would give permission for the passage of European ships,” says a high-ranking community source. The reason for optimism is based on the fact that it would not be an aggressive operation but one of an eminently humanitarian nature because the feeding of millions of people may depend on its success.

“Russia’s military aggression risks causing a dramatic effect on global food security,” says the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, in the letter of invitation to the 27 European leaders for the summit on May 30 and 31 in Brussels. And the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, accuses Putin of instrumentalizing food as a weapon of war just as he has done with energy supply.

“Russian artillery is deliberately shelling granaries in Ukraine and Russian warships in the Black Sea are blocking the departure of Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds,” lamented Von der Leyen during his speech last Tuesday at the Economic Forum. Davos World Cup.

Michel notes in his letter: “At the European summit we will discuss concrete ways to help Ukraine export its agricultural production using EU infrastructure.” The President of the Council adds: “We will also see how to better coordinate the multilateral initiatives in this regard.” The meeting of the 27 will include the remote participation of the president of the African Union, Macky Sall, a sign of community concern about the vulnerability of African countries.

The EU wants to show countries in danger of famine that the lack of grain is not a consequence of European sanctions, as Russian propaganda argues, but of the armed blockade of Ukrainian ports. The draft of the conclusions of the summit includes “the commitment to maintain world trade in food raw materials free of unjustified barriers.” And it promises “solidarity towards the most vulnerable countries”.

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