Ukrainian Cereals: Danube Ports under Moscow’s Aim

During the night of Sunday to Monday, a Russian drone fell on Reni, a small Ukrainian port. This waterway was previously considered safe due to the immediate proximity of Romania, a member of NATO.

With the end of the secure corridor in the Black Sea last week, it was the safest and most efficient alternative route to export Ukrainian grain. But Moscow, which has been hounding the Odessa region for a week, wanted to show that the waterway, via the Danube, was also a target. On the night of Sunday July 23 to Monday July 24, a Russian drone fell on the Ukrainian port of Reni, a stone’s throw from Romania, a NATO member country, and less than 5 kilometers from the Moldovan border.

“Last night, a Shahed-136 drone attack [des drones kamikazes iranians, ndlr] targeted the port infrastructure of the Danube”, reads a message posted this Monday morning on the official Facebook page of the operational command “South” of the Ukrainian armed forces, which claims to have “destroyed three drones”. “After these strikes, a grain shed was destroyed, tanks for storage were damaged, a fire broke out”, continues the message, which also specifies that “seven port employees were injured”.

Romania condemns attacks

On Twitter Monday morning, the Romanian president “strongly condemned the recent Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure on the Danube, very close to Romania”. For Klaus Iohannis, “this recent escalation poses serious security risks in the Black Sea”, and “affects the transit of cereals from the European Union and therefore world food security”.

Videos and photos posted on Twitter by grain traders show collapsed silos, and port infrastructure, including a sunflower oil tank, destroyed by the blast. For Andrey Sizov, managing director of SovEcon, a company specializing in agricultural markets in the Black Sea, this unprecedented attack is the sign of a “rapid escalation”. “In our opinion, this is a bigger event than the attacks on Odessa, which could be expected,” Sizov tweeted Monday morning, recalling that the Danube was “currently the main export route for Ukrainian grain.”

Since the establishment of the blockade in the Black Sea in the spring of 2022, Ukrainian farmers have fallen back on the small ports of the Danube to continue to export their goods, first by the river then via Romanian waters. Izmail, Ust-Dunaisk and Reni, which was hit overnight, contributed less than 0.5% of Ukrainian grain exports before the invasion. From July 2022, when the river ports started working at full capacity, to January 2023, this share rose to more than 30%, although the agreement concluded with Russia allowed parallel export via the Black Sea. According to Bloomberg, in May and June, the volume of exports via the Danube (around 2 million tonnes per month) even exceeded that of cereals leaving via the Black Sea, which was slowing down under the effect of Russian undermining.

Pressure on all Ukrainian export routes

Since the end of the agreement on the export of Ukrainian grain to the Black Sea, the Danube has become even more crucial. Dozens of barges and cargo ships are currently going up or down the river, and dozens more are waiting at the entrance to the delta.

All Ukrainian export routes are under pressure. Brussels has since May 2022 suspended customs duties on Ukrainian agricultural imports into the European Union. A decision renewed since then, and in force at least until spring 2024. Accusing the massive arrival of low-cost Ukrainian foodstuffs of lowering the price of local production, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria blocked in April the entry into their territory of cereals from their neighbor, agricultural giant. Under pressure, the European Commission found a compromise solution: since May, Ukrainian grain has only been authorized to transit through these countries and cannot be sold there. This agreement is supposed to end on September 15, but Warsaw and Budapest have already warned that they will unilaterally block Ukrainian agricultural products again if the restrictions are not extended.

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