Belarus route for Ukrainian grain gives EU leaders hope and headache

Luxembourgish PM Xavier Bettel speaks to journalists on 30 May 2022. [Council Newsroom]

**The article was updated with comments by the prime ministers of Latvia and Belgium

One of the ways out of the looming world food crisis is to re-channel the million tonnes of grain stuck in Ukraine via Belarus. The difficulty, however, is of political nature: the EU would need to lift the sanctions it recently imposed on Belarus.

As EU leaders meet for the second day of their extraordinary summit on Tuesday (31 May), they will discuss the looming food crisis and ways of circumventing the Russian blockade on Ukrainian exports.

EU leaders to consider ‘all available ways’ to bypass Russian food export blockade

EU leaders will consider all available ways to circumvent the food export blockade imposed by Russia on Ukraine’s ports, including a naval mission to escort cargo ships, but will not concede to Russia’s demands to lift sanctions, sources told EURACTIV.

Throughout Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which began on 24 February, global agricultural supply chains have been plagued by uncertainty – in particular in relation to wheat, cereals, and edible oils.

Ukrainian farmers now have an estimated 22 million metric tons of grain stuck in storehouses. Entire countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa, are dependent on Ukrainian imports of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil.

The UN anticipates a global food crisis if the Ukraine stocks remain blocked.

According to sources, diplomats have been discussing the Belarus route – channeling the grain from Ukraine to the Baltic Sea, instead of the Black Sea. The advantage of such a solution is that Belarus has the same width of rails as Ukraine, inherited from Soviet times.

Belarus is a landlocked country, but it used to export huge quantities of potash by rail to the Lithuanian port of Klaipeda. Lithuania is also a former Soviet republic which has inherited the Soviet-standard rails.

Lithuania Railways CEO to resign over Belarus potash transport

The head of Lithuania’s state-run railways, Mantas Bartuska, agreed on Tuesday (14 December) to step down to “de-escalate” public outcry over the transport of potash from sanctions-hit Belarus, but the company said it could not stop facilitating it for now.

The EU has banned all Belarusian imports of potash, a crucial fertiliser that is largely deficient in Europe. The decision was taken in retaliation for Minsk’s support of Russia in its military attack against Ukraine.

Economic penalties targeting Belarus potash exports were already introduced back in June in the aftermath of the forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk that led to the incarceration of opposition activist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, who were both travelling to Lithuania.

Asked about the Belarus route on Monday, Luxembourgish PM Xavier Bettel said the issue was tricky.

“To lift the sanctions because of opportunity reasons for us, which are different from the reasons for which we imposed the sanctions, I find this a bit tricky”, he said.

Bettel added that this was an issue to be discussed at the summit.

“Let’s talk about everything and find common solutions”, he said.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said he expects Russia to build a new Baltic Sea port for exports of Belarusian potash which are hit by Western sanctions. He made the declarations last February during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Asked by EURACTIV about the Belarus route, Krišjānis Kariņš, the prime minister of Latvia, said on Tuesday that all options needed to be explored, but all of them had potential difficulties.

“Belarus is sanctioned, and properly so, together with Russia. In order for Belarus to agree to export Ukrainian grain, which physically could have been done quite easily through the Baltic ports, we have a lot of capacity. The question is what will Belarus ask in return. And that price may be too high.”

Asked the same question, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the Belarus route did not seem viable because of the sanctions.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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