“The sound was so foul,” she said. “It felt like the world was ending.”
Like many of the farmers who live near Odessa, one of Ukraine’s major port cities, Lazarova is convinced that Moscow’s attacks on the port and its agriculture sector are aimed at extracting maximum pain following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to terminate a United Nations-brokered deal allowing grain exports from the Black Sea.
“They’re sick! They are doing it on purpose!” she said, nursing a bandage on her arm as she stood among twisted scraps of metal strewn about the nearby homes.
Odessa’s grain industry suffered tens of millions of dollars in damage as a result of the near-nightly Russian airstrikes. The attacks destroyed at least 60,000 tons of grain, enough to feed more than 270,000 people for a year, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
Follow-on attacks Monday targeted grain warehouses along the Danube River — a key alternative route for exports following the collapse of the Black Sea deal — and appeared to be aimed at crippling the country’s entire agricultural industry, which accounted for about 20 percent of Ukraine’s economy before Russia’s invasion.
On Thursday, another Russian missile hit Odessa’s cargo terminal and administrative buildings, killing one employee, Ukraine’s military said.
Russia, one of the world’s largest producers of fertilizer, said it backed out of the Black Sea deal because it was being implemented to benefit only Ukraine and was not resulting in a substantial increase of exports of Russian grain and fertilizer because of Western sanctions — a point fiercely disputed by the United Nations, the United States and international aid agencies.
“Only upon receipt of concrete results, and not promises and assurances, will Russia be ready to consider restoring the deal,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
U.S. officials reject that Western sanctions are to blame and see Putin executing an explicit strategy. “This is very intentional,” Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters this week after returning from a visit to Odessa.
Not only is Putin using “food as a weapon of war,” Power said, “but it also appears to be part of an ongoing campaign to decimate Ukraine’s economy.” Many Ukrainian farmers also face the danger of thousands of deadly land mines and other unexploded ordnance now strewn across their fields.
The Black Sea deal, forged by the United Nations and Turkey in July 2022, ended a four-month Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s ports that had dramatically curtailed Ukraine’s exports, crippling its already war-battered economy. In the year that followed, the deal allowed Ukraine to export 33 million tons of grain and other food products.
Power has made it her goal to salvage Ukraine’s agricultural sector, announcing an additional $250 million to increase the rate of loading and unloading at Danube ports, expand access to financing for farmers who lost business in the war and cannot afford to plant new crops, and streamline Western border checkpoints to increase trade.
The use of the Danube River as an alternative trade route has shown the most promise thus far. In March 2022, the Danube routes moved 55,000 tons of agricultural cargo but have now greatly expanded capacity, with 2.2 million tons moving in May. “That’s almost a 4,000 percent increase,” Power said.
But that amount still falls far short of satisfying export potential in a country that expects to harvest 44 million tons of grain this year — cut nearly in half from a high of 86 million in 2021.
On Thursday, African leaders attending a summit meeting in St. Petersburg urged Putin to halt his blockade and return to the grain deal. They have warned that restrictions on exports will worsen an already critical food crisis in some African nations.
Andrii Dykun, chairman of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, says the United States has been “crucial for Ukrainian farmers,” underscoring the benefit that loan assistance has provided for farmers whose profit margins have been decimated by increased shipping costs or the inability to get their products to market.
“Without that support we would not survive,” Dykun said.
Other farmers, however, are pessimistic that governments or international institutions will have enough impact to allow their business to survive.
“It’s not economically viable to trade grain to the world right now — at all,” said Oleksandr Chumak, a farmer who employs more than 200 people across 8,000 acres of land.
Chumak, who grows wheat, barley and other crops, said there were several months last year when the Black Sea deal moved exports quickly, but eventually Russia began restricting the movement of ships unpredictably, raising transport costs for farmers.
“The last six months it wasn’t working at all,” he said.
While he has been able to export some products via the Danube, it is too expensive to be profitable, he said.
Other farmers, such as Anatoliy Artemenko, who grows wheat in the Odessa region, said it is still worth it to export his product, but that is easier said than done. “It just stays in storage — this year, next year — it just keeps piling up,” he said.
A key problem is competing for export contracts at a time of pent-up supply. “We were given a contract for 1,000 tons, and that’s what we exported,” Artemenko said.
Russia is not the only problem for Ukrainian farmers. Poland’s government, at the behest of its influential farm lobby, is pushing the European Union to extend import restrictions on Ukrainian agricultural products — a move some Ukrainian farmers view as a betrayal from an otherwise staunch ally.
“It’s a complete disaster for us,” said Dykun, the head of the agrarian council. “And from a country that always says, ‘You are our brothers and sisters.’”
For Power, restoring Ukraine’s agriculture industry is key to making the war, which shows no signs of ending soon, more sustainable financially for the United States, which has expended tens of billions of dollars in military and economic assistance.
Gainfully employed farmers are an “important source of tax revenue for the Ukrainian government,” Power said.
“And while the United States and Europe provide very significant direct budget support to the Ukrainian government,” she added, “the goal has been, of course, to decrease that … over time as Ukraine’s own economy recovers.”