Belarus agrees to grain corridor to Klaipeda, but on which terms?
Belarus has agreed to allow Ukrainian grain destined for Baltic ports to transit through the country, provided that Belarusian goods are allowed to enter those ports as well. The Belarusian authorities made this announcement on Friday 3 June, according to the Belarusian telegraph agency Belta.
Ukraine, as the world’s main grain supplier, has faced difficulties in grain exports since the Russian-Ukrainian war due to the blockade of Black Sea ports. The United Nations is actively mediating in this discussion to avoid a global food crisis. There are two solutions currently being negotiated: one is to pass through Belarus by rail, and the other is to open the Black Sea ports as soon as possible.
Willing to open corridor
As for the corridor through Belarus, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said in a call with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that the country is willing to provide the necessary capacity for transiting Ukrainian grain exports, and proposed talks with the Ukrainian government to discuss the provision of its port permit for Belarusian goods.
At the same time, Belarus requested that ports in Germany, Poland, the Baltic States or Russia open for Belarusian goods as well.
Belarus is the largest producer and exporter of potash, which is mainly transported by rail to the port of Klaipeda and then transferred by sea to other destinations. In August last year, the United States announced sanctions on Belarusian potash plants, which took effect on 8 December and are still effective. Lithuanian Railways’ LTG terminated its contract for the transport of Belarusian potash, which left Belarus scrambling for other routes.
Meanwhile, the negotiations regarding a re-opening of the Black Sea ports are taking place, but with little result so far. The Russian president has said the country is willing to facilitate the transport of Ukrainian grain and Belarusian potash through Black Sea ports, but only if Western sanctions are eased. Ukraine rejected the proposal, based on fears that Russian ships at the port would be used for military purposes.
Most likely option
With the solution at the Black Sea not in sight, the corridor through Belarus seems most likely to succeed. Detouring to Poland is also an option. However, this approach faces obstacles in terms of capacity and transport efficiency, explained a Ukrainian industry expert. “The train needs to change the gauge twice, once into Poland and the other into Lithuania”. Lithuanian Minister Marius Skuodis said that the railway network currently allows for two trains per day from Poland to the port of Klaipeda.
By contrast, transiting through Belarus is more ideal. Belarus has a wide-gauge line, and trains do not necessarily need to change tracks halfway, thereby improving the efficiency of transportation throughout the journey and allowing more freight trains to run on the existing railway network.
In addition, Ukrainian railways are also pinning their hopes on routes passing through Hungary, Slovakia and Romania. But in any case, the capacity of the existing rail network is a drop in the bucket compared to traditional sea routes. Coupled with the complex entanglements in the surrounding countries, it seems a little impossible to use the railway as the savior of the world’s food supply.