Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week accused Russia of blocking all shipping from Ukraine's Pivdennyi port, with 1.5 million tons of agricultural products unable to move. The alleged blockade would contradict the Black Sea Grain Initiative that allows Ukraine to transport grain and other products through the Russian-controlled Black Sea to ease food shortages in many countries.
Russia and Ukraine recently agreed to a two-month extension of the initiative, through July 18, but exports of grain and food from Ukraine have slowed to their lowest levels since they resumed last August under the deal.
In a recent interview with VOA's Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze, Ukraine's Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Mykola Solskyi discussed the importance of the initiative and Ukraine's problems with exporting its goods since the Russian invasion began more than 15 months ago.
VOA: Russia agreed to extend the grain corridor with Turkey and the U.N. How does it affect your supply chain? How significant is it for your farmers and for the agricultural business in Ukraine?
Mykola Solskyi: It's very important, of course, because we still have crops from last season to export. I think, at the moment, it's about 9 to 10 million tons of grain: the oil and the crushed products from our sunflower and soybeans that we still have to export. Also, I think in a month and a half we will start a new season. So, it's very important for all markets and our farmers and traders.
VOA: How much grain is delivered by sea and how much by land through the European border?
Solskyi: The corridor started last year in August. And if we look at statistics from month to month, about 50% of Ukrainian grain was exported by seaports, thanks to this agreement, and about 50% of Ukrainian grain and products, agricultural products were exported by train, tracks and particularly by Danube River using Romanian ports.
VOA: Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe put a ban on delivering Ukrainian grain and ban all agricultural products through Poland. How does this affect your production process?
Solskyi: Of course, it doesn't help. Its additional problems, logistical problems for Ukrainian farmers. And, of course, we see that Russia is looking at this situation and using it. Agriculture crops under the ban are sunflower seeds, corn, wheat, and rapeseed. Other products can be imported to Poland and to other countries, our neighbor countries. And all of these products, including these crops, can be exported to any other European country.
VOA: What do you expect from Poland, from other countries? What would be the best scenario for Ukraine and for your partners?
Solskyi: We hope for understanding and because they are our closest supporters. We hope that they demonstrate this support in this situation. And of course, all of us understand that the problem is not with Ukrainian farmers. The problem is the war, and the problem is Russian aggression. So, everybody understands it.
And also at the same time, we have to understand that the lowest price for crops at the moment, it's caused not only because local companies export a lot of grain from Ukraine, but also because other countries around the world produce a lot of grain during this new season, especially Brazil. So, we have to explain it to all communities, all farmer communities, and they have to understand it.
VOA: The restriction on the delivery of grain and other agricultural crops had a big negative effect on production and delivery of your products to the market. How does this situation affect generally agricultural business in Ukraine, that grew significantly in the last 20 years?
Solskyi: Of course, all of the Ukrainian farmers and most of the Ukrainian business try to keep business. And it's the main goal for them at the moment. They try to receive some profit, but they can't do it at the moment. For most of them the main goal is to keep their business.
VOA: The war affected not just the delivery, but the production. Ukrainian farmers are working under really difficult circumstances, under attack, under bombarding. They are demining the land by themselves. What do Ukrainian farmers need today to do this work and feed the world more effectively?
Solskyi: Actually, it's easier to ask what they don't need than what they need. They need a victory, and they need peace, because they have to do business in the proper way. Because at the moment they care about people, about the employees — what they have, and they cannot be sure that they will be involved in this business during this season.
And also, extremely high prices for logistics and the attacks, rocket attacks, some regions have a lot of problems with mining, especially in the southeast part of Ukraine. So, there are a lot of problems. And the main goal is to finish the war, to receive victory in this war, and after they will be okay with this business, and they will resolve all of the problems they have at the moment.
VOA: Ukraine is eager to become a member of the EU and NATO. How do you foresee negotiations with European countries considering the big potential that Ukraine has in the agricultural sector?
Solskyi: Of course, we expect very intensive, and ... very difficult, negotiations in this part. Actually, we see it now already and it's like a test. And I think it's a normal process, because we receive experience on how to do politics and to do agribusiness in Europe and how to protect interests in Europe. It usually takes a lot of time for countries to enter the EU. This part of the negotiation, agriculture negotiations, it's very difficult and long.
VOA: It's one of the most difficult?
Solskyi: Yes. And when we asked our neighbors, and they explained to us a lot of points, what we have to care about in this process, and they are ready to share this experience. Of course, we expect a much faster process, but at the same time, we have to understand that Ukraine is much bigger than all other new members of the EU in the agriculture area. So, probably, it will change some rules in the EU.
VOA: They have to be changed?
Solskyi: I think so, probably it has to be something like a new agriculture agreement or some additional part of a new agriculture agreement. As I said, I expect this. I think that it will be like this, but I'm not sure because it's a new way for all of us. We didn't have that kind of experience.
VOA: Did you already start talking about it with European countries? Could you elaborate?
Solskyi: Yes, of course. We started to check a lot of documents that we have to sign and to agree with them. So, if we see all demands from the EU and all documents from the EU that we have to agree with EU legislation, about 40% is about agriculture and products. It's the biggest part of negotiations.
VOA: But did you talk to your European colleagues about the possibility of changing the rules?
Solskyi: In private. In private conversations, yes.
VOA: And do they understand?
Solskyi: Eastern countries. Yes.
VOA: And Poland and others?
Solskyi: Yes. Our neighbors understand it because some of them had similar problems, because they also have a big potential in agriculture, especially Romania or Bulgaria. And the medium-sized companies, agro companies in these countries are much bigger than in northern Europe with typical European farms. So, it's a little bit more similar to Ukraine in agriculture business. So, it's easier for us to understand each other.
VOA: And one more question about the hopes that Ukraine has for the world. Ukraine provides around 40% of the grain to the world, if I'm not mistaken. What are you hoping to achieve next? What market needs your product the most?
Solskyi: In my opinion, there are three important markets for Ukraine. First one, the European, Asia, Middle East and African countries.