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Ahead of the G-7, Biden confronts Putin's latest geopolitical weapon — food

Ships anchored in the Black Sea wait to enter Romania's Sulina canal on June 8. They are waiting to reach Ukraine to be loaded with food.
Daniel Mihailescu
AFP via Getty Images
Ships anchored in the Black Sea wait to enter Romania's Sulina canal on June 8. They are waiting to reach Ukraine to be loaded with food.

Updated June 24, 2022 at 10:01 AM ET

President Biden is heading to Europe this weekend, where G-7 leaders are expected to address growing food insecurity — and how Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the crisis as a geopolitical weapon.

As the summer harvest season is picking up in Ukraine, the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports along the Black Sea is driving fears that tens of millions of people, particularly in Africa, will face severe hunger — even the possibility of famine. Just three Ukrainian-run ports are still operating, and all are along the Danube River.

"What Putin's war has done is not only tried to wipe out the culture of the Ukrainians, decimate people and commit innumerable war crimes," said Biden, speaking about rising food costs in Philadelphia last week, "but he's also prevented the grain — thousands of tons of grain that are locked up in those silos, ready to be exported, but they can't get out through the Black Sea because they'll get blown out of the water."

In an effort to outmaneuver Putin, Biden said he's working on a plan with European allies to build temporary silos on Ukraine's borders, including in Poland, where grain can be stored until it can be safely exported out of the country through the West by rail, where it can then be distributed to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world.

But building these silos — while needed to accommodate the summer and fall harvests — is not seen as a lasting solution.

More than 20 million tons of grain are already trapped in Ukraine.

If exporting via the West is going to be a viable alternative to relying on Ukraine's southern ports, larger investments will be needed — especially in Ukrainian and European railway systems, which have different track gauges, says Elena Neroba, a Kyiv-based analyst with the grain trading firm Maxigrain.

"We need to build a railway with European-type gauge railway into Ukrainian territory or Ukrainian-type into European territory," Neroba says.

Ukraine and Russia together account for over a quarter of the world's wheat exports.

Russia has denied responsibility for the food shortage and worked to divide international support by blaming the food shortage on Western sanctions.

"So, [Russia is] aware of the political influence that they wield through this," says Caitlin Welsh, a former top adviser in the Obama White House. "And I'll say it seems like it's been effective."

Welsh, who now runs the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees Biden's proposed silos as a positive stopgap to the problem, but says the permanent solution is reopening Ukraine's southern ports.

She likens efforts to get Ukrainian grain out of the country via the railway to U.S. drivers trying to get across America without their cars.

"Imagine in the United States [if] all of a sudden we couldn't use roads and we had to transport everybody by airports and by planes and rails," she says. "We could do it. It would happen, but it would be slow and it would be really costly."

Putin has said he could open a channel to allow more grain exports, but on the condition that some Western sanctions on Russia are lifted.

The United States and its allies have resisted that. The Ukrainians don't like it either. That's because there is no trust.

Ever since Russia last invaded Ukraine in 2014, Ukrainians have learned that any assurances from the Kremlin are worthless, argues Mariia Bogonos, the head of the Center for Food and Land Use Research at the Kyiv School of Economics.

"There is no trust in any kind of papers, signed documents or agreements signed with Russia," she says. "And, especially, there is no trust in such kind of things for the long term."

It's just another reason why — as Ukraine builds its ties with the European Union — it needs to expand its methods of trade, including via the West.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.