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You can find claims all over the media that Ukraine cannot export their grain (I assume it was last year's production since it is too early for the new harvest) because the Russian navy has blockaded their ports. The UN is now talking to the Russian authorities of whom they have already made some demands and at the same time there are talks mediated by Turkey, at high levels, going on.

I am wondering, why should the world listen to the demands of an aggressor nation? Ukraine has a long border with Poland, Romania and other European countries. Couldn't they just bypass the blockade? I assume that transporting grain by train is more expensive. But transporting the grain to the ports on the Danube in Romania is not a long leg. From there it could be loaded on barges going towards Europe or in some ports could be loaded on seagoing vessels and reach the Black sea on the other side of the blockade.

Why is everyone turning a blind eye to such a simple solution?

Related: Is there a food crisis linked to the Ukrainian war or a massive speculation?

Update:

Judging from the answers by @Federico and @Fizz it seems I have to repeat that we are talking about last year's harvest that is being exported in small batches over a long period of time.

Update 2:

I found an article by the FAO which contains a comment about the usual export volumes from Ukraine in this period:

(The remaining volume of) 2.2 million tonnes for export in April-June ... is absolutely typical for Ukraine in the last months of the season

Even assuming an increase of production and exports since 2020 we are talking about an average export of less than 30,000 tons per day. (But this figure does not include pulse and oil seeds). The possible export routes are between five and eight different rail lines towards Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Slovak Republic.

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  • 4
    Your update very much seems like you have not understood the answers by Federico and Fizz. Jun 7 at 22:53
  • Which grains are these? Wheat, rice, barley, ?
    – Gathide
    Jun 10 at 3:16
  • 1
    @Gathide Fair question. AFAIK Ukraine is a major exporter of wheat, oats and barley. The two cereals on top of the list of the most produced ones (according to Wikipedia) are rice and maize are not listed,so even if Ukraine should export something they should be negligible quantities.
    – FluidCode
    Jun 12 at 13:31

5 Answers 5

36

From the Wall Street Journal:

Before Russia’s invasion, around 98% of Ukraine’s prodigious grain exports would flow from ports on the Black Sea. But those ports have been shut by a Russian naval blockade, and warehouses, rail yards and other key export infrastructure have been targeted and damaged by Russian attacks.
[...]
The new routes are longer, often backlogged and more expensive. The challenge is complicated by stretched infrastructure and continued Russian attacks on bridges and railways.

So that's why, there is not really a viable alternative to export via cargo ship, the other routes can carry a much smaller amount of grain, and the other routes include:

  • rail to Romania (and then sea through Costantia)
  • rail to Poland and/or Lithuania (and then sea)

Rail transport across borders is also hampered by the fact that Ukraine, using the Russian gauge, has a different rail gauge than its direct neighbours that instead use the Standard gauge:

Image depicting the different rail gauges around Europe. Ukraine has a different gauge w.r.t. Poland and Romania Image from this website

This further slows down transports along this routes.

Similar reasoning is provided also on Reuters and the BBC

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    But trains do travel across those borders. It's done by switching the wheels at the border crossing. Presumably it's dangerous right now because Russia can bomb them during the switch. But building the switching stations on the Polish/Romanian sides should take care of this. Russia is very cognizant of not hitting any NATO territory and to this day has only sent missiles into Lviv, when bombing it. It has not sent a single plane (as far as I know) to bomb any structures near NATO countries.
    – wrod
    Jun 8 at 2:01
  • 13
    @wrod did I claim that trains do not travel across those routes? I thought I simply wrote "This further slows down transports along this routes.", no?
    – Federico
    Jun 8 at 4:16
  • 2
    you are correct. I don't really have an issue with your answer. I guess it's just editorializing. The biggest slowdown is in the switching of the wheels. If it seems like I suggested that there was something wrong with the answer, I didn't mean it that way. I agree with the answer.
    – wrod
    Jun 8 at 4:59
  • 4
    @wrod At least the main rail tracks between Ukraine and western neighbors have gauge change facilities on both sides of the border, with at least one track per gauge crossing the border itself. This was developed to double capacities, but only has an effect on the number of trains processed, not on the time neccessary for one individual train.
    – ccprog
    Jun 8 at 13:29
  • 3
    @eee treating Belarus as neutral or Ukraine-friendly is disingenuous at best. Plus, the limitations on the amount of grain via rail are still present, the only solved issue would be the gauge change.
    – Federico
    Jun 9 at 7:08
18

Couldn't just bypass the blockade? I assume that transporting grains by train is more expensive. But transporting the grains to the ports on the Danube in Romania is not a long leg.

The Ukrainian & Romanian road and rail network all the way to Constanza seems to be the limiting factor, e.g.

Panamax Unity N ship carrying over 71,000 tonnes of corn from Ukraine left the port of Constanta at the end of April, being the first transport of its kind since the war began. [...]

Intermediating such flows put immense pressure on the Romanian transport capacity. Loading a ship with a capacity of 70,000 tonnes, such as the first ship loaded with Ukrainian grain, takes 49 trains and as many barges or several thousand trucks.

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    Yes, ships are huge, but there must have been 49 trains arriving at the port to accummulate 70,000 tonnes. It would then suffice to neither unload the trains at the port nor even to drive south, but to drive west in the first place. What am I missing?
    – Sam
    Jun 7 at 14:55
  • 8
    @Sam What you are going to do west with the grain? Except crossing the whole Europe towards the big ports in the Netherlands, congesting the European rail network? The main market for the UA grain is not the EU at any rate.
    – fraxinus
    Jun 7 at 21:16
  • 3
    The Western liberals, and their "efficiency savings" on all things, surely means they have no spare railway capacity to move this grain, without disrupting other crucial activity served by rail?
    – Steve
    Jun 7 at 21:22
  • 7
    @Steve look at one of the adjacent answers, which includes a graphic of rail gauges in Europe. The difference in size will require a not insignificant amount of time and effort to transfer across those boundaries. Also, as fraxinus mentions, the market is not the EU, anyway, so that would add another transfer at some port … Jun 8 at 0:40
  • 2
    @Sam et al: a further issue with trains is that the cars themselves are a scarce, reusable commodity. Yes, 49 trains arrived at the port, but many of those would have reused a significant portion of rolling stock. It is highly unlikely that Ukraine, or any other player, has sufficient spare rolling stock to carry even a sizeable fraction of the accumulated grain. And if those were sent out of Ukraine to unload elsewhere, they could not transport the new harvest. Jun 8 at 15:31
11

German TV news outlet Tagesschau on May 28th published a longer piece about the situation at Romanian ports Romania creaks under weight of Ukraine transports. Here are some translated excerpts:

Up to 25 million tonnes of grain are still stored in Ukrainian silos, according to United Nations. In six weeks, when the new harvest starts, further 40 million tonnes will be added. More than 100 ships loaded (sic) with Ukrainian grain are now waiting in front of the small port of Sulina, the only city in the Romanian part of the Danube delta...for entrance into the Sulina channel.

On Thursday [May 23rd], officials from Ukraine, Moldavia and Romania held an emergency meeting. Until now, the long neglected little harbour was prepared to handle up to three or four ships a day. The neighbouring small Danube harbours of Reni and Ismail are full with ships and barges...The main port of shipment however is Constanta, the largest harbour of Romania.

But the rail connections to the port facilities are underdeveloped. According to minister of transport, Sorin Grindeanu, there are almost 100 rail tracks that have not been used for decades. Additionally, 700 abandoned freight cars had been left there, half of which have been moved by now. "The other cars cannot be moved, because they are heavily detoriated and grown over", the minister said.

...through the port of Constanta, until mid of May, Ukraine is said to have been able only to transship 240,000 tonnes of grain...about one percent of the grain volume waiting for export.

Regarding barges going upriver on the Danube, yes, it is possible to ship grain from Reni (not Giurgiu accross the Moldovan border, that one is even smaller) or Izmail to Rotterdam. The transport capacity is limited by passage through the Rhine-Main-Danube channel. It can take pushers with two Euro lighters (2018: 142 lighters), 2800 tonnes capacity each or motorships with a capacity of 2100 tonnes (type GMS, 2018: 1153 ships). According to the traffic report, of the 1.5m tonnes being transported north in 2018, 400,000 tonnes were agrarian or food products (including wood).

1

I am wondering, why should the world listen to the demands of an aggressor nation? [...] Couldn't they just bypass the blockade? [...] Why is everyone turning a blind eye to such a simple solution?

Some countries are not listening to the demands of an aggressor nation. Primarily, Ukraine (which is fighting back), but also the US, UK, Denmark and Sweden (which provide weapons to fight back). Ukraine will unblock its ports, bypass the blockade, and transport its goods - after destroying parts of the Russian Black Sea fleet with modern weapons. Parts of the Russian fleet might have to go the way of the Russian military ship.

Simple solution indeed!

REFERENCES:

WASHINGTON, May 19 (Reuters) - The White House is working to put advanced anti-ship missiles in the hands of Ukrainian fighters to help defeat Russia's naval blockade, officials said, amid concerns more powerful weapons that could sink Russian warships would intensify the conflict.

Ukraine has made no secret it wants more advanced U.S. capabilities beyond its current inventory of artillery, Javelin and Stinger missiles, and other arms. Kyiv's list, for example, includes missiles that could push the Russian navy away from its Black Sea ports, allowing the restart of shipments of grain and other agricultural products worldwide.

Exclusive: U.S. aims to arm Ukraine with advanced anti-ship missiles to fight Russian blockade: https://www.reuters.com/world/exclusive-us-aims-arm-ukraine-with-advanced-anti-ship-missiles-fight-russian-2022-05-19/


The Danish Armed Forces are sending long-range anti-ship missiles to Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters on Monday. The range of Denmark’s coastal defense Harpoons could put Russian ships at risk in the Northern Black Sea, a naval analyst told USNI News.

“I’m especially grateful to Denmark, which announced today that it will provide a Harpoon launcher and missiles to help Ukraine defend its coast,” Austin said in prepared remarks at the Pentagon following a meeting with an international coalition and Ukraine defense officials.

While Austin did not specify the type of Harpoon, the Danish military’s coastal anti-ship missile batteries field RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block IIs that are capable of not only hitting ships at sea, but also targets in port and on land with an upgrade from the Boeing Advanced Harpoon Weapon Control System.

“This expands Harpoon’s capability to attack coastal, in harbor and land targets such as shore defense sites, [surface to air missile] sites, exposed aircraft, port/industrial facilities and ships in port,” reads a 1999 press release from Boeing on the sale of the system to the Danish Naval Material Command.

Depending on where Ukrainian forces base the coastal battery, the missiles could extend the range Ukrainian Navy could target the Russian Navy’s Black Sea ships, open-source naval analyst and retired Navy Capt. Chris Carlson told USNI News on Monday.

Denmark Sending Ukraine Anti-Ship Harpoon Missiles To Take on Russian Ships in Black Sea: https://news.usni.org/2022/05/23/denmark-sending-ukraine-anti-ship-harpoon-missiles-to-take-on-russian-ships-in-black-sea


The Swedish government released an extra amending budget on June 2, 2022, with recommendations indicating that Sweden will provide Ukraine with financial assistance and military equipment. The RBS-17 (Robot-17) short-range anti-ship missile is part of the new package. How can this system help Ukraine ?

The statement was made during a press conference by Sweden’s Defence Minister and Finance Minister. While the package includes financial assistance for Ukraine’s central bank and other armaments, the most significant supply to the Ukrainian Armed Forces was the RBS-17 missile system, a manpack anti-ship version of the AGM-114C Hellfire.

“Sweden’s government has proposed donating further defense weapons to Ukraine, including the Robot 17 missile system, the AG 90 automatic rifle and ammunition, and another 5,000 armored shots 86. Sweden also plans to pay SEK 60 million (US$6.3 million) to the NATO-created fund to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces.”

Swedish MoD press release

The Swedish ministers stated that the RBS-17 missiles were a special request from the Ukrainian government.

Sweden donated SEK 500 million ($52.4 million) to the Ukrainian central bank’s fund to help the country’s armed forces earlier this spring. The Swedish government is now proposing that Sweden contribute an additional SEK 578 million ($60 million) to the fund. According to the proposals, allotted funding for the central government budget will increase by SEK 1.0 billion ($105 million) in 2022.

RBS-17 is a laser-guided missile system used by units of the Swedish Amphibious Brigade to make it difficult for the enemy to penetrate ships or ports in the Swedish archipelago. The system has high precision and can be deployed from shore on ships and other locations at sea and on land. The amphibious units can illuminate the target at which the missile is directed with a laser designator.

The RBS-17 missiles are equipped with a 9-kilogram warhead and have a range of about 8 kilometers. The length of the missile is 163 centimeters and it has a diameter of 17.8 cm.

RBS-17 will not be the first missile system to be transferred; it will join the UK-provided Brimstone guided missiles that were already in use. As previously reported, the U.S. has also considered delivering Harpoon or NSM coastal missile systems to Ukraine, among other weapons.

How Can Swedish RBS-17 Anti-Ship Missiles Help Ukraine?: https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2022/06/how-can-swedish-rbs-17-anti-ship-missiles-help-ukraine/

-2

Bevause the Russians could theoretically sink the civilian vessels.

Simply put, exporting Ukrainian grain by sea will require the Russians to give it their approval because Ukraine and Russia are at war, and Russia's naval vessels could easily sink the unarmed civilian freighter ships.

With that said, however, Russia has given these ships their approval to pass, and even worked out agreements with other nations like Turkey to provide then with third-party military escorts; the primary thing preventing the ships from leaving isn't Russia, but Ukraine; Ukraine are refusing to remove the naval mines in their ports out of fear that the Russians would exploit their lowered defenses to invade their cities. Of course, those mines would also destroy any civilian ships that tried to leave the port, so as long as they remain, the ships can't leave.

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  • 1
    "third-party military escorts" - are you sure you got that right? From the reports that I have heard Cavusoglu proposed a) turkish escorts for ships leaving and b) russian controls of ships entering the port of Odessa.
    – ccprog
    Jun 9 at 14:08
  • 4
    "the primary thing preventing the ships from leaving isn't Russia, but Ukraine; Ukraine are refusing to remove the naval mines in their ports out of fear that the Russians would exploit their lowered defenses to invade their cities." - That's a rather odd way of putting it. I would say instead that the thing preventing ships from leaving is Russia having put Ukraine in a position where it needs to mine its ports so that its cities aren't invaded.
    – JBentley
    Jun 9 at 19:53
  • @JBentley Its the accurate way of putting it. Ukraine could let the ships go if they wanted to, but they're not - the grain crisis is their fault, not Russia's.
    – nick012000
    Jun 9 at 22:30
  • 1
    So if I point a gun at your front door and threaten to pull the trigger if you emerge, it's your fault that you can't leave the house, because it's your "choice" not to do so? Sure, Ukraine "could" let the ships go, and see even more of their cities destroyed and civilians murdered. That's not any kind of real choice though. The real choice is made by Russia who caused the situation in the first place and could choose to end it at any time.
    – JBentley
    Jun 10 at 10:04
  • This answer is off topic. The question is about the alternative routes, not about the passage through the blockade.
    – FluidCode
    Jun 12 at 13:39

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