Can Ukrainian grain be shipped to the world via Croatia?
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made the announcement after a meeting with his Croatian counterpart, Gordan Grlic Radman, in Kyiv
It sounded like the good news that millions around the world had been waiting for. When Ukraine announced on Monday that Croatia had agreed to allow Ukrainian grain to be exported via its ports on the Danube and the Adriatic Sea, it may have appeared to some that the serious threat to global food security created by Russia's war on Ukraine and its blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports had been averted.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba made the announcement after a meeting with his Croatian counterpart, Gordan Grlic Radman, in Kyiv.
In a statement since confirmed by the Croatian Foreign Ministry, Kuleba said that "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."
Huge logistical challenges
This last part could take quite some time. Even a brief study of a map of the region shows the enormous logistical hurdles that would have to be overcome to turn this idea into reality.
Ukrainian grain can be shipped via two Ukrainian ports on the Danube: Izmail and Reni. Both were recently the target of Russian drone attacks.
Another option would be to ship the grain via the Black Sea to the Romanian port of Constanta and from there to the River Danube. The grain would then have to be transported 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) upstream to the Croatian Danube river port of Vukovar.
Does Vukovar have the capacity?
But the port in Vukovar is small. It is currently capable of handling a maximum 1.2 million tons of freight per annum. That might sound like a lot, but it is important to note that this capacity does not relate to bulk freight (such as grain) alone but to all freight, including containers.
Moreover, Vukovar currently has only one silo that could be used to store grain and it has a capacity of just 10,000 tons.
To put things in perspective: According to the European Union, Ukraine exported over 30 million tons of grain and other foodstuffs as part of the Black Sea Grain Initiative between August 2022 and May 2023. It took over 1,080 ships to transport this volume of freight. In short, the port in Vukovar would not play a major role in the shipment of Ukrainian grain.
Are road and rail transport viable options?
And then there is the question of how Croatia would transport this huge volume of grain to the Adriatic ports of Rijeka, Zadar or Split.
Even large trucks can transport no more than 45 tons of freight at a time. In other words, more than 22,000 such trucks would be needed to transport one million tons of grain. Croatia's roads would barely be able to cope with such traffic volumes.
Rail transport is another option. However, it is unrealistic to think that the Croatian railway network, which has been neglected for years and can hardly manage regular passenger transport as it is, would be able to cope with this volume of freight.
Moreover, much of the Croatian rail network is not even electrified, and its tracks are in poor condition. In short, rail transport in Croatia is slow and expensive.
"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.
A drop in the ocean
In financial terms, too, the export of grain via Croatia would not be very beneficial for Ukraine. Wheat is currently selling for about €350 ($385) per ton on the world market and maize for €260. Even if Croatia did manage to ship one million tons of grain, this would bring a profit of just €300 million.
Much of this would not go to Ukrainian farmers because all the people involved along the transport chain would all want to make a profit too.
Jurcic told DW that the cost of shipping Ukrainian grain through its ports would be greater for Croatia than the positive impact it would have on Ukraine. 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."
A message to Kyiv and Brussels
Croatia also provides Ukraine with military support. In early May, it became known that Croatia had donated 14 Mi-8 helicopters to the war-torn country. But, says Jurcic, what applies to the grain agreement also applies to other Croatian aid to Ukraine: "Whether it be the helicopters that were sent or other weapons and munitions, it is all above all an expression of symbolic support. They probably use up that ammunition in one day."
Jurcic summed up the size of Croatia's support succinctly: "Croatia's help for Ukraine in the war is almost at the level of a statistical error. It is, in other words, insignificant."
Jurcic told DW that the gesture made by Croatia's Foreign Minister in Kyiv is a message not only to Ukraine, but also indirectly to the European Commission. "Croatia often expresses more support for the EU than the union requires and distinguishes itself as one of the countries within the EU that is most favorable towards Brussels' politics," he said.