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From the file

Odesa | The Ukrainian port normally feeds the world, but the Russian invasion means nothing is getting out. Can we reopen the port – or will millions starve?

Fields are planted with grain crops near Ternopil, Ukraine on 16 June 2018. (Photo by Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Odesa

Odesa

The Ukrainian port normally feeds the world, but the Russian invasion means nothing is getting out. Can we reopen the port – or will millions starve?

Date commissioned
5 May 2022

Date published
23 May 2022


Why this story?

Odesa port, in full flow, is a sight to behold. Teeming with yellow cranes, large metal tanks, and container ships, the Black Sea hub is all industry and energy. Ukraine grows enough food for 400 million people and most of it is exported through Odesa, a fulcrum of the world’s food supply. Or at least it was, until Russia invaded. Now the port is a ghost town; sea mines and Russian warships leave little hope of any ship getting in or out. That is an unqualified disaster. Without Odesa vast swathes of the world, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea and far beyond, face starvation, death and mass exodus. Heat and drought, food protectionism and bad governance make the global situation ever more vulnerable. There are growing calls to reopen Odesa, and rightly so. But given an end to the blockade is in the gift of Vladimir Putin, what can the world actually do? Xavier Greenwood, Producer

Transcript

[Screams of migrants in attempted boat rescue off Libyan Coast]

Police in Austria say the 71 migrants found dead in an abandoned lorry last week appear to have died of suffocation almost immediately after being sealed in.”

Euronews, 2015

This disturbing image shows how bad it has become. The body of one small boy cradled in a Turkish police officer’s arms.”

NBC News, 2015

“‘And what do you want to be?’ ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘A doctor, you want to be a doctor?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘So this is not where you should be living – in this train station?’ ‘No, no. No one deserves that life.’ ‘No.’ ‘No.’”

Channel 4 News, 2015

James Harding, narrating: These are the sounds – the stories – of a mass migration. One we all remember. 2015, the largest number of people seeking shelter in Europe since the Second World War.  

People came from Syria and Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East, escaping the aftermath of the Arab Spring, fleeing their homes in hope of better lives, out of fear of war, violence… and hunger.  

The uprisings, you may remember, began mostly in marketplaces. They started with food shortages and surging prices following bad weather and terrible harvests.

“2010 was Australia’s wettest year in a decade and the third wettest on record.”

ABC News Australia, 2010

“A drought this severe has not been seen in decades in the region and has left people struggling.”

CCTV-9, 2010

The heat wave has ravaged farmland and destroyed crops over an area the size of Portugal, leaving farming communities in dire straits…”

Al Jazeera, 2010

James Harding, narrating: Today, there is another, much bigger food crisis on the horizon. One that threatens famine for millions. Exodus for millions more.   

David Beasley: As I’ve said, it would make the Syrian refugee crisis look like a Sunday afternoon picnic or walk in the park. And I don’t mean that rhetorically. I mean, quite frankly, we’re talking about millions and millions of people.

James Harding, narrating: In this week’s Slow Newscast, we are looking at a disaster mapped out before us. 

David Beasley: And she said, “Mr. Beasley, you’re trying to scare the European people.”

And I said: “Hell yeah, I’m trying to scare you. You need to wake you up to the reality you’re facing.”

James Harding, narrating: And we are asking if anyone will stop it. 

This is the story in slow, real time of a long-shot campaign to reopen the port that feeds the world – or, if in the next six weeks that campaign fails, then the starvation, riots and mass migrations to come. 

Most weeks in Tortoise, we tell the story of a person across time. This week it’s about a place in time, a place where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spills into all of our lives.

From Tortoise: this is Odesa.

Nina Kuryata: In terms of deaths, are we talking about thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions?

Olena Neroba: Millions.

James Harding, narrating: I’m James Harding, I’m the editor of Tortoise, and I’m reporting this story with Nina Kuryata, who grew up in Odesa, who fled the war in Ukraine then escaped to Poland, and is now the newest recruit to the Tortoise newsroom in London. And together we are trying to understand what it would take now to secure the port of Odesa for the world.

***

Nina Kuryata, narrating: Today, the port of Odesa is closed.

Vladimir Putin’s navy blocks the passage of ships in and out.

Sea mines and sunken warships obstruct the Russian amphibious invasion.

The grain silos are full; the tankers are parked up alongside the docks; the cranes stand still, like paralysed steel dinosaurs.

But it’s not normally like this.

Nina Kuryata: Imagine the Black Sea with its blue-green water in the Odesa bay and its sandy or rocky beaches. It is summertime, the sun is shining brightly, and you can even see dolphins in the sea.

192 steps bring you from the sea up to the city where the monument of Duke de Richelieu, the first Odesa governor, meets you surrounded by beautiful buildings.

The city of Odesa stands all along the Odesa bay – with its classic, baroque and modern architecture of the central part, mostly French and Italian. Its wide streets are full with the sunlight in the morning and in the evening. And in the afternoon, when the sun goes high and it is especially hot, the streets are in the shadow of acacias – the symbolic trees for Odesa.

Every building is like a cake – pale, pink, blue, yellow – with a lot of cream on the top. You can see classic columns, baroque mouldings, figures of atlases and caryatids, and this beauty surrounds you everywhere in the centre of the city. Much of it survived the Second World War when the people of Odesa fought the Germans for more than seventy days before the Nazis occupied it. 

Nowadays, Odesa is famous as a multicultural city with magnificent beaches, its port, businesses and fancy restaurants. Its people are well known for their love of jokes – even during the city’s darkest moments. There is a humour festival called Humorina which takes place every year on April Fool’s Day.

When I was a student in the mid-1990s, my friends and I would spend our time near the sea whenever possible. We would feed the seagulls and swans, drink beer on the sand in the spring and the autumn – and swim in the summer. We’d often have barbecues and play guitars and sing songs. And I liked to count the ships on the horizon.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: You can hear why I care about Odesa. 

But to understand why it matters to the rest of the world, you need to go out to the rest of Ukraine… into its fields.

Before the Russian invasion, Ukraine supplied half the world’s sunflower oil, 15 per cent of its corn, and 12 per cent of its wheat.

And those numbers mask just how much poorer countries rely on Ukraine’s food stocks.

Food prices in Lebanon have risen more than six hundred per cent in the past two years, as its economy has imploded. It now depends on Ukraine for 80 per cent of its wheat imports.

Russia and Ukraine together produce 82 per cent of the wheat imported by Egypt and all of the wheat imported by Somalia.

I could go on…

Olena Neroba: Really I think that in a few months, people in developing countries like Sri Lanka, Syria, Iran… will start to die because of lack of food, they will suffer.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: This is Olena Neroba, who works for a grain brokerage firm in Ukraine.

Olena Neroba: There will be hunger, real hunger. Because the cost of wheat is one of the record in history. It’s almost top levels. And [for] people in developing countries – poor – bread is the bottom of daily diets. They consume twice more wheat or bread products than, for example, people in the European Union.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: It’s a perverse situation to be in. 

Ukraine’s grain silos are full, while the rest of the world grows hungrier.

Olena Neroba: So we produce around 35-38 million tons of corn per year, while domestic consumption is around seven million tons. We produce around 28 million tons of wheat per year – by domestic consumption around seven million tons. We produce around eight million tonnes of barley, while domestic consumption is around four million tonnes. And we are one of the biggest sunflower oil producers. We produce around 15 million tonnes in average [a year] in the last five years.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: What’s more, 98 per cent of grain exports from Ukraine are shipped via the Black Sea. The vast majority go through Odesa.

When Ukraine got its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the port of Odesa became a huge hub for shipping grain all around the world.

I used to pass this port twice a day, on my way to and from university.

I saw freight trains arriving at the port, the cranes loading the containers onto ships. I heard the sounds of construction, when the grand Hotel of Odesa was built on the edge of the port.

These days, some of the biggest shipping companies operate there. 

The likes of Yang Ming from Taiwan, firms from Germany, Dubai, Turkey… It’s truly a port to the world.

It’s on China’s New Silk Road through Georgia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. 

And it’s on the Bosphorus Express shipping route, where you can travel over sea and ocean to South Korea, through Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia.

That, of course, was before the war.

When Russia invaded Ukraine and its forces drew closer to Odesa, the country’s third biggest city, Ukrainian residents prepared for battle.

They set up anti-tank hedgehogs and filled bags with sand from the beach to form barriers in the city.

“What you’ve got behind me here is basically a yacht club. This is Odesa, a peak holiday destination for Russians, frankly, as well as Ukrainians in the past. Now it’s a barricade factory.”

CNN

Nina Kuryata, narrating: Russian forces never did arrive in Odesa, but it hasn’t stopped war coming to my city. 

[Sound of missile fired by Russian artillery]

This is the aftermath of the bombing. The first time a civilian structure in the city has been hit.”

NBC Today

We begin this morning with the war in Ukraine, where the major port city of Odesa has come under a new Russian attack. Authorities say one person was killed and five were injured when missiles struck a shopping centre and a warehouse.”

NBC News

Nina Kuryata, narrating: Ukraine has had some success in weakening the Russian Navy.

You might remember the story of the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, the Russian vessel Moskva. We are hearing that it has now sunk.”

Sky News

Nina Kuryata, narrating: But Odesa is still under a blockade. Russia has 20 warships and submarines in the Black Sea. There is nothing getting out.

James Harding, narrating: This is when David Beasley appears on the scene. It’s 25 April and he’s headed to the Black Sea to orchestrate an outrage.

“Literally just crossed the border from Moldova to Ukraine. And we’re heading to Odesa. Why? Because the ports in the Odesa region are absolutely critical to food security around the world.”

David Beasley, Twitter video

James Harding, narrating: As you can tell from his accent, he’s not from Odesa. He’s from South Carolina in the US.

And if his name sounds familiar, it’s because he was a precociously young member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, then governor of the state in the late 90s. 

He was best known for taking on the controversy of the Confederate flag that used to fly on top of the South Carolina State House until he pressed for its removal. 

He’s a Republican, and, as you’ll hear, he’s press savvy and plugged into Washington.

In 2017, he was appointed executive director of the World Food Programme; and three years later he picked up the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the WFP.

But, as he’ll tell you, even before the war in Ukraine, the picture of food shortages, malnutrition and starvation had been getting worse and worse and worse.   

David Beasley: Before the Ukrainian war, we were already facing unprecedented humanitarian crisis. I’d been warning the world leaders that 2022 was going to be the worst humanitarian crisis year since World War II. Let me give you a little backdrop. When I took over the World Food Programme five years ago, there were 80 million people marching towards starvation. And my goal was to put the World Food Programme out of business. That was kind of what I was wanting to do, we were no longer needed.

Well *laughs* we went from 80 million to 135 million, right before Covid. And so you would question: why did it go up? And the simple answer was manmade conflict. And the second impact was climate shocks around the world. And so that was 135 million marching towards starvation. Covid comes along. Bam. Economic ripple effect around the world, devastating the poorest of the poor countries. 

And so that number spiked from 135 to 276 million people marching towards starvation… who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. 

James Harding, narrating: And Ukraine has made things worse still. Global export prices for corn and wheat went up by 20 per cent plus in the month after the war broke out. And the blockade of Odesa is now strangling future food supplies.   

David Beasley: How does that food from the farmers in the field in Ukraine get to the rest of the world? It’s by ships… and a lot of ships. In fact, on average, 3,000 trained carloads per day, go to, for example, the Odesa ports to be able to ship 50/60 million metric tonnes of wheat, corn maize, sunflower oil et cetera. And so if these ports are shut down, and they are, that means 400 million people won’t get the food that the world depends on. 

James Harding, narrating: Ukraine is also a farming economy. If the Black Sea ports stay closed, Ukraine will eventually collapse. And it won’t stop there.  

David Beasley: Lebanon’s in serious trouble. Jordan could become very vulnerable. Syria, the crisis in food deterioration there is continuing. Yemen, of course, the Sahel; I say the Sahel – that is Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger. And then you get into Cameroon, CAR, DRC, a little bit further south. Then you [get] Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan. Somalia is having a massive drought right now. And then there’s the Somali region of Ethiopia. So you’ve got from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

Then you get over to, for example, Central America… The number of people talking about migrating to the United States border is five times what it was a year ago… And so now I’ll go over into Afghanistan and get into Asia et cetera. So it’s like a ring of fire around the entire world right now.

James Harding, narrating: The first time I met David Beasley, it was 48 hours after that trip to Odesa. And you know when you’re told two things on the same day and they are coincidental, but, somehow it feels, no accident? Well, the same day he was telling me about the fivefold increase in migrants through Central America into the US, someone else mentioned that the UK Home Office’s internal forecast for asylum seekers crossing the Channel this year was 115,000 people; it was 27,000 in 2021 – nearly, yes you guessed it, a fivefold increase. 

People will starve, they will die, or – as we’re seeing – they will flee.

And this was the story that Beasley had gone to Odesa to tell.  

David Beasley: I’ve always felt like you go in, you do what you gotta do. And if it’s your time, it’s your time. That don’t mean you get stupid and reckless, but I know you can’t achieve by phone what you can achieve by being on the ground. That’s why I went. I had, as you can imagine, a lot of my Senator friends saying: “Don’t you go, don’t you go.” And I’m like: “No, I’ve got to go.”

James Harding, narrating: What he saw when he got there was what he feared. Nothing. 

David Beasley: It’s like a ghost town. You got a hundred ships just sitting there and all the seafarers sitting there.

James Harding, narrating: Stillness punctuated by the noise of war.

David Beasley: While I was there, missiles were flying overhead.

We were running down to bomb shelters. I don’t want to say by the minute, but it was quite often. 

James Harding, narrating: Beasley, himself, had gone to make a noise – one that he’s trying to get heard back home.

We go now to David Beasley, the executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme. He joins us from Lviv, Ukraine.”

Margaret Brennan, Face the Nation

James Harding, narrating: And the message is landing – and not just in America. In the UK the governor of the Bank of England, generally understated and cryptic, has sounded the alarm. 

And then I’m afraid the one that I guess I’m going to sound a bit apocalyptic about is food… As you know Ukraine is a major supplier of wheat, major supplier of oil, cooking oils… And that is a major worry. And it’s not just, I have to tell you, a major worry for this country; it’s a major worry for the developing world as well.”

Andrew Bailey, Bank of England chief, Treasury select committee

James Harding, narrating: All over the globe, a pattern is beginning to repeat itself. Food nationalism.

“Indonesia announced plans to ban palm oil exports on Friday, a shock move by the world’s largest palm oil producer.”

The Star

James Harding, narrating: Not a harvest for the world, but, first and foremost, for themselves.

“India, which is the world’s second largest producer of wheat, was hoping to fill the supply gap left behind by decreased exports from Ukraine. But now a scorching heat wave is destroying grains across the country.”

SABC News

James Harding, narrating: The world’s poorest people are already in desperate need. The World Food Programme has cut rations to Yemen in half.

“A dire emergency in East Africa. The drought there exacerbating the hunger crisis.”

ABC News

James Harding, narrating: The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in four decades.

And David Beasley has not been the only one who, in his phrase, is jumping up and down.  

On 9 May the European Council president made a surprise trip to the city.

“Today I came to celebrate Europe Day in a melting pot of European culture and history: Odesa, the city where Pushkin said that ‘you can feel Europe’.”

Charles Michel, European Council president

James Harding, narrating: Charles Michel called for a global response to the Odesa blockade.

And President Zelensky has not minced his words: 

“Tonight Ukraine’s President Zelensky warning the Russian blockade of ports like Odesa is threatening the world’s food supply.”

NBC News

James Harding, narrating: You’ll forgive a note of cynicism here. The West did not answer Zelensky’s call for a no fly zone. For decades the world’s been warned of the climate emergency, but emissions keep rising in more or less a straight line. The Covid crisis, a global pandemic, was met with very little international coordination – and that much too late. In fact last summer I tried to piece together how the UK government could have promised to vaccinate the world at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay and then fallen so far short.  

So it takes an optimistic nature, to say the least, not to be jaded about global leadership, not to think that, once again, even with the prospect of famines, civil wars and mass migrations spread out before us, there’ll be more words and no action.  

But both Nina and my colleague Xavier Greenwood, who’s producing this podcast, tell me not to be quite so defeatist, quite so fast.  

We’d heard that the WFP was trying to rattle government cages in Ankara and Paris, that they were trying to use the big food multinationals to lobby their governments… and that, in fact, the Biden administration, too, was actively exploring a coalition effort to secure the seaways in and out of Odesa. And Xav tried to find out more… 

Xavier Greenwood: So I talked to an official in Brussels. He said the EU is working with Turkey and the UN, and they’re going to try to set up a sea corridor in the Black Sea. And that would be for civilian vessels to ship grain to Istanbul.

Now the EU official I spoke to said they wouldn’t necessarily wait for Russia’s agreement to do this. When I asked if they thought this was risky, the official said it was the same risk military supplies going into Ukraine face.

He said it would be risky for Russia, too, to attack a ship filled with grain and destined for African countries in need.

And so I got on the phone to Seth Jones. He works at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He was an adviser for US special operations forces in Afghanistan. I asked him how such a channel could work.

Seth Jones: Well, it is possible that ships could move through the Bosphorus, hug the western coastline of the Black Sea, up along the border with Bulgaria, Romania, and then into Ukraine, unload their goods at Odesa or load them onto ships, and then turn around and hug the coastline and then come back.

They’re still going to be in danger of Russian ships at some point, particularly in Ukraine. I think if they hug the coastline closely within Romanian or Bulgarian waters, there may be some hesitation for the Russians to shoot down a civilian ship carrying grain or other material.

You know, it is possible to test the blockade and essentially bait the Russians into either having to let some of these ships go or sink civilian ships.

James Harding, narrating: If we’re trying to piece together this campaign to reopen Odesa as it happens – or it doesn’t – there are two ways out of this. Russia. Or the West. Might Russia use the reopening of Odesa as leverage in a deal with Ukraine? Or will the West marshal merchant, and maybe even military, navies to establish an international convoy?

Nina Kuryata, narrating: What I think history tells us is how difficult it will be to persuade Russia to stage a quiet retreat from Odesa, even if they don’t look like capturing the city.

Scott Reynolds Nelson: If you look back over 250 years, this is the ninth Russian movement into the Black Sea to control this region so that the Russian empire can expand. So this is not news for the past 350 years that Russia is desperate to keep control of this and it’s crucial for its imperial advances.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: This is Scott Reynolds Nelson. He’s a history professor at the University of Georgia, and the author of Oceans of Grain. As you might expect, he knows a lot about grain. And at the centre of that history is Ukraine. 

​​Scott Reynolds Nelson: What’s fantastic about it is it’s the Goldilocks zone, right? It’s got deep water nearby, which is important for delivering it; grain is relatively cheap per pound, so you want to be able to send it by water as much as possible. You’ve got flat plains, you’ve got fresh water and you’ve got deep black soil. You can see that black soil from a distance. You can see it from an aeroplane, actually. It’s so black. 

We can see grain being grown there – archaeologists can – from 2300 BC. It’s where Jason and the Argonauts… Some people say that the Golden Fleece that they were actually searching for is a kind of metaphor for the grain that’s in this region. It feeds the Greek city states.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: For centuries grain has shaped Russia’s imperial ambitions – and Odesa has long been at the centre. 

It’s obvious that Vladimir Putin understands the importance of food.

His two-year-old brother, Viktor Putin, died of diphtheria and starvation during Nazi Germany’s siege of Leningrad in the Second World War.

Putin knows, too, the economic weapon that food can be. Ukraine is a huge exporter of wheat, but Russia is the biggest.

Scott Reynolds Nelson: Basically the blockading of grain is in Russia’s interest. It’s more than doubled the value of grain at this point, which is propping up the ruble – one of the things that’s propping up the ruble, not just gas. And he can certainly continue this for quite a while.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: That’s one of the reasons why Odesa, in Vladimir Putin’s eyes, is the key to Russian greatness.

Scott Reynolds Nelson: When Catherine the Great named her grandson Constantine, it was to capture Istanbul and turn it into Tsarigrad, the city of tsars. And Vladimir Putin has a similar kind of sense that Russia’s destiny ultimately depends on the Black Sea. And if he loses it, Russia will never be a great power again.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: None of that suggests that Putin or Russia are going to readily open the ports at Odesa for humanitarian reasons.  

James Harding, narrating: And the clock is ticking. As Nina and I sit here recording this, it’s late May. Within six weeks, Ukraine’s farmers will start bringing in the next harvest. The silos are already full. And where will the food go, other than be left to rot? 

Bruce Jones: Well, I think the starting point is to realise that there are going to be two phases to the food supply crisis that’s created by blockages in Odesa. Right now there’s quite a lot of supply of grain and foodstuffs and fertiliser – both in Russia and Ukraine – from last year’s crop. The challenge is getting it to market, which can be done by train to the west, but vastly more efficiently by ship out of the port of Odesa. 

James Harding, narrating: This is Bruce Jones. He’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he runs a project on international order and strategy. 

And he served with UN operations in Kosovo and the Middle East.

Bruce Jones: Next year, we’re also going to be dealing with serious interruptions to Ukrainian supply. So that’s a down-the-road challenge; it is going to be a supply problem. Right now it’s primarily a transportation problem. 

The second point is to be realistic that for all of the challenges that the Russian Navy has had in the Black Sea either they’re going to have to consent to some kind of operation to improve the flow of goods out of the Odesa port or Nato would have to fight its way in..

James Harding, narrating: So, those are two options, consent or force. Are either likely?

Bruce Jones: I mean I would almost rule out the intervention scenario.You know, if we were going to intervene, we would have done it over the no fly zone. We would have taken out the Russian Air Force. We would have stopped this ages ago, which would not be that difficult to do if we’re willing to risk the escalation. We haven’t been, I think correctly.

James Harding, narrating: That leaves the consent option.

Bruce Jones: I was part of putting in place the humanitarian assessment mission that happened while Russia and Nato were at war over the situation in Kosovo. While Nato was bombing Kosovo, we got Nato to stop the bombing long enough to do a humanitarian assessment. It is perfectly possible for major military powers to hold back on operations long enough for a humanitarian operation to be underway.

James Harding, narrating: Putin may have some diplomatic reasons to let grain through the ports. It’s just that you wouldn’t bank on it.

Bruce Jones: Russia might see an interest in not hurting its reputation in some of those parts of the world that are dependent on the flow of cereals and fertiliser and other food stocks from Ukraine. So it might be that Russia calculates its interests differently in terms of the international dimensions of this than the domestic Ukrainian dimensions. 

I don’t know. It seems to me that Putin’s in a pretty bloody-minded mood, and showing very little signs of willingness to compromise or accede to pressures or demands or et cetera.

Nina Kuryata, narrating: I heard something similar from Olga Trofimtseva, who is ambassador-at-large in Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

She agreed that there was little hope of Putin making concessions. In her eyes, only a Ukrainian victory would reopen the Odesa port.

Olga Trofimtseva: You cannot trust Russia, at all. Not in peacetime, and in wartime even less… I don’t see there any potential for negotiation, unfortunately, any room for negotiation with Russia… Only defeat and only the pushing back of Russians to their borders and out of the Ukrainian territory would help us to be back on a world market and in a full scale as we were before 24 February.

James Harding, narrating: There are other possibilities. 

This is Seth Jones again, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He thinks China might be the country to save the day.

Seth Jones: With the potential for Finland and Sweden entering Nato, we see an iron curtain from Finland through the Baltics, along the eastern flank of Nato. And so this is going to force the Russians to continue to look to China as their major relief from the sanctions, the political isolation and the expanding military alliance to their west. So if the Chinese start to push back and ask for relief of the blockade, I think that at least the Russians or Vladimir Putin in particular would listen to it.

James Harding, narrating: But China aside, there don’t seem to be any safe options for the West.

Whatever it does in the Black Sea, it risks escalating the war.

Seth Jones: Well I think there are a range of factors that are increasing the possibility of an expansion of the war.

Just to list a few of them: the expansion of Nato to include Finland and Sweden is a serious potential factor that could escalate tensions; the continuing movement of weapons into Ukraine that have contributed to the deaths of Russian soldiers, including Russian general officers. And the use of Nato territory such as Poland for the movement of weapons, including howitzers now that have just as much reach as Russian artillery, so it’s very useful to Ukrainian forces along those frontlines in the Ukrainian east; that’s a potential avenue for escalation of the war. 

And then with Odesa and the potential for growing starvation, efforts to break the blockade. So if Nato countries put significant pressure on Turkey – also a Nato country – to allow ships in, that risks escalation.

James Harding, narrating: It’s little wonder that there are efforts to avoid the Black Sea altogether. 

The European Commission is trying to establish what it calls Solidarity Lanes. They’re intended to make it easier for Ukraine to export grain over land and across borders into EU ports.

But that is not as easy as it sounds.

Ukrainian wagons aren’t compatible with most of the EU rail network – i.e. the gauges of the railways are different, so you have to lift the cargo trucks off one set of rolling stock and onto another. And the average waiting time for border crossings out of Ukraine, at the moment, is 16 days.

And, anyway, you also have a problem of capacity. 

A very big problem.

It will take an unholy number of wagons, barges, lorries, vessels and loading equipment to export the 20 million tonnes of grain that the EU estimates has to leave Ukraine in the next three months. 

Bruce Jones from Brookings told us that a single container ship fully stacked can carry the same quantity of goods as between 50 and 70 trains. 

The European Commission has called the task – and prepare yourself, it’s a big word – “gigantesque”.

So if all that doesn’t work, it feels like we might end up back where we started – at that proposed channel in the Black Sea, down from Odesa to Istanbul.

And that is, anyway you look at it, a dangerous prospect: western civilian ships with thousands of tons of grain onboard, sailing a gauntlet of sea mines and Russian missiles.

James Harding: When will, you know, if you’ve won or lost? 

David Beasley: Well, when the ports open and I don’t think this is a six month campaign, it’s the next 60 days. And then when you start seeing people dying, that’s when you know, you’re really lost.

James Harding, narrating: The chances of the port being reopened are, let’s face it, small. The consequences enormous. And in the days since I first spoke to David Beasley, I’ve started to see the world and listen to the news differently.  Because if Odesa remains closed, then the prospects for tens of millions of people of even one meal a day will hinge on the weather. 

“Karachi, which is the biggest and the most densely populated city in Pakistan, is facing an intense heatwave.” 

WION, 2022

“Over the next seven days, we have the potential to break or shatter over 200 record high temperatures.”

CNN, 2022

“India’s northwest has suffered under a heatwave, but this one is unusually early.”

France 24, 2022

And I realise now that, listening out for those weather reports from around the world, it all comes back to Odesa.  

Nina Kuryata: I spent a good part of my childhood in the small town of Lyubashivka, two hours by car from Odesa. On the road between the two all you can see are fields on both sides. Yellow and green. Fields of sunflowers, corn, rye and wheat.

In 1984 I started school. Soviet propaganda was everywhere. One of the first things we had to learn, even before we knew how to read, was to know the name of our motherland. There was only one correct answer.  Not “the USSR”, not “the Soviet Union”, but “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. 

I remember, I asked my grandmother if she knew the correct name of our motherland. She had survived Stalin-induced famine when she was three and grew up under the shadow of World War II. She didn’t give me the right answer. So I was very pleased to tell her: The correct answer for our motherland is “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”! 

She looked into my eyes very seriously and said: “Remember: your motherland is Lyubashivka.” That weekend, she took me by my hand, we went to a wheatfield, and she said: “Look. This is your motherland.”

This episode was reported by Nina Kuryata, James Harding and Xavier Greenwood. It was produced by Xavier Greenwood, the sound designer was Tom Burchell and the editor was Jasper Corbett. 


How we got here

A few weeks ago, we held Tortoise’s first Responsible Food Forum. David Beasley, the executive director of the World Food Programme, joined us straight from Odesa in Ukraine. He’d travelled into a warzone to get us all to pay attention to a crisis in real time: Odesa port is shut and the world isn’t being fed. As Beasley put it, we have 60 days to reopen the port and prevent a global disaster of hunger. Normally the Slow Newscast tells the story of a person over time but this week it’s a place in time – where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine spills over into all our lives. There is no one better to do this with than Nina Kuryata, who grew up in Odesa, fled the war, and now works at Tortoise in London. Together we’re figuring out how to secure the port for the world. James Harding, Editor


Further reading


Past reporting

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