While Croatia’s symbolic support sends a positive message to both Ukraine and the European Commission, it is essential to recognize the realities of these gestures in the face of the broader geopolitical landscape.
The aggressive war between Russia and Ukraine and the following blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports pose a grave threat to global food security. However, a glimmer of hope has emerged as Croatia has offered to export Ukrainian grain through its river and sea ports. Millions of people around the globe breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that Croatia had agreed to facilitate the export of Ukrainian grain through its ports on the Danube and the Adriatic Sea.
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Following a meeting with his Croatian counterpart, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced this breakthrough in Kyiv. He said, “Every contribution to unblocking export, every door opened is a real, effective contribution to the world’s food security” and that both sides would now “work to establish the most efficient routes to these ports and make the most of this opportunity.”
Currently, Ukraine’s exports are dependent on European Union land routes. There is also an alternative route that follows the Danube. Russia attacked infrastructure along the latter route last month. While the news of the Croatian port agreement may appear to be a significant step towards easing the crisis, a closer look at the geopolitical landscape and logistical complexities reveals that challenges remain.
A cartographic journey of logistics
A simple glance at the region’s geographical map reveals the magnitude of the logistical obstacles that must be overcome to facilitate grain export. Potentially, Ukrainian grain could be transported via the Ukrainian ports on the Danube, namely Izmail and Reni, which were recently the target of Russian drone attacks. Alternately, a route through the Black Sea to the Romanian port of Constanta is being investigated, followed by a 1,000-kilometer journey upstream to the Danube river port of Vukovar in Croatia.
However, Vukovar’s capacity is questionable. With a maximum annual cargo-handling capacity of 1.2 million tons, the port’s solitary silo, with a capacity of only 10,000 tons, raises concerns regarding its suitability for accommodating large grain shipments. Between August 2022 and May 2023, Ukraine exported an astounding 30 million tons of grain and food products under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, according to data from the European Union. This is a compelling illustration of the scope of operations. This endeavor necessitated more than 1,080 ships, revealing the inadequacy of Vukovar’s infrastructure.
Vukovar’s limited involvement in the shipment of Ukrainian grain becomes evident in light of this context.
Infrastructure and transport concerns
The journey of Ukrainian grain from Croatian ports to the Adriatic Sea adds an additional layer of complication. The viability of road and rail transportation becomes a crucial issue. Large vehicles capable of transporting no more than 45 tons of cargo emphasize the magnitude of the problem. Over 22,000 of these trucks would be required to convey one million tons of grain, putting a tremendous strain on Croatia’s roads. The underdeveloped and overburdened Croatian rail network provides an alternative, albeit with restrictions. Lack of electrification and poor track conditions result in sluggish and expensive rail transport.
“For this transport to take place, enormous investment and a lot of time would be required. It would take years. Because not only the railways, but also the ports that are currently under discussion are not equipped to handle such large volumes of bulk freight. It would all be much too expensive,” said Ljubo Jurcic, professor emeritus at the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Zagreb and former Croatian economy minister.
What about the economic equation?
The agreement between Ukraine and Croatia may have symbolic significance, but its economic benefits appear to be limited. Wheat and maize are sold for €350 and €260 per ton, respectively, on the commodity market, where profit margins are modest. Even if Croatia were able to successfully ship one million tons of grain, the ensuing profit would be only €300 million.
However, this figure does not reflect the net profit for Ukrainian producers, as numerous intermediaries would also receive a portion. Given the size of the required investment and the economic returns, the endeavor may be less economically viable than it initially appears.
A gesture of solidarity amidst symbolism?
Grain exports from Ukraine continue to be vital to global food security, especially for developing nations that rely on the nation’s agricultural products. However, Croatia’s contribution to this effort extends beyond logistics and finances. The insight of Jurcic casts light on Croatia’s symbolic stance, highlighting its solidarity with Ukraine’s plight and its willingness to aid a nation in crisis. He is convinced that “Croatia above all wanted to express its sympathy with Ukraine, to show that it is on Ukraine’s side and supports the country. It is more a symbolic gesture of support.”
Moreover, one cannot disregard the strategic implications of Croatia’s actions. Both the facilitation of grain exports and the provision of military aid convey messages not only to Kyiv but also to the international community as a whole. Jurcic notes that Croatia frequently extends its support for the European Union beyond what is required, positioning itself as a staunch supporter of the policies of Brussels.
As Ukraine and Croatia embark on this ambitious endeavor, it becomes essential to strike a balance between symbolism and realism. The feasibility of the grain export route necessitates meticulous planning, a substantial investment, and an unwavering commitment to navigate the complex web of logistical obstacles, despite the profound resonance of Croatia’s gesture of solidarity.
To conclude, the Ukraine-Croatia grain export agreement, declared in response to Russia’s threat to global food security, provides a potential means of circumventing Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports. However, limited port capacity, transportation constraints, and economic realities cast doubt on the viability and benefits of this endeavor. As the world observes the unfolding of this situation, it remains to be seen how Ukraine and its allies will navigate these complex obstacles and maintain global food security stability.