(NEW YORK) — There is evidence of Russian vessels departing “from near Ukraine with their cargo holds full of grain,” a U.S. Department of State spokesperson told ABC News on Monday night.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reported that Russia seized at least 400,000 to 500,000 tons of grain worth over $100 million, according to the State Department spokesperson.
“Ukraine’s MFA also has numerous testimonies from Ukrainian farmers and documentary evidence showing Russia’s theft of Ukrainian grain,” the spokesperson said.
The news of Ukrainian grain aboard Russian ships partly confirms a recent report by The New York Times that Moscow is seeking to profit off of grain plundered from Ukraine by selling the product while subverting sanctions. Ukraine has already accused Russia of shipping the stolen grain to buyers in Syria and Turkey.
Since Russian forces invaded neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, the cost of grain has skyrocketed worldwide. Russia and Ukraine — often referred to collectively as Europe’s breadbasket — produce a third of the global supply of wheat and barley, but Kyiv has been unable to ship exports due to Moscow’s offensive. Earlier this month, the Ukrainian Grain Association warned that Ukraine’s wheat harvest is expected to plummet by 40%.
In recent weeks, there has been an all-out push from the United States and the United Nations to facilitate exports from war-torn Ukraine, desperate to offset what they foretell is a looming global food crisis with the potential to devastate the developing world. A Russian blockade in the Black Sea, along with Ukrainian naval mines, have made exporting siloed grain virtually impossible and, as a result, millions of people around the world — particularly in Africa and the Middle East — are now on the brink of famine.
As part of ongoing efforts to assist food exports, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to meet with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara this week. But State Department spokesperson Ned Price has set low expectations for the meeting.
“I don’t know if we should expect breakthroughs,” Price told reporters during a press briefing on Monday afternoon. “Of course, we’ll be watching closely. We’ll be talking with our Turkish allies in the aftermath of that visit.”
Price underscored the pain the world is feeling because of Russia’s crunch on its food supply.
“This is a war that not only has brutalized — and, in many ways, terrorized — the people of Ukraine, but it has put at risk food security around the world,” he said.
Currently, there are approximately 84 merchant ships and 450 seafarers trapped at Ukrainian ports, according to Price.
“Not only is there grain aboard these vessels, but there are about 22 million tons of grain sitting in silos near the ports that also needs to move out to make room for the newly harvested grain,” he said. “In addition, Russia has actually taken aim at ships at sea. They have taken aim at grain silos. They are continuing to effectively implement what amounts to a blockade of Ukraine’s ports.”
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