April 14, 2024

Hours after the European Union ended a temporary ban on imports of Ukrainian grain and other products to five member nations, three of them — Poland, Hungary and Slovakia — defied the bloc and said they would continue to bar Ukrainian grain from being sold within their borders.

As Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain exporters, has struggled to ship its grain because of Russia’s invasion, the European Union has opened up to tariff-free food imports from the country, a move that had the unintended consequence of undercutting prices and hurting farmers in several countries in the east of the European Union. As part of a deal meant to protect those countries, the bloc allowed some grain to transit through them, but prohibited domestic sales.

Brussels’ decision to let that deal expire at midnight on Friday revived an issue that has threatened European Union unity on support for Ukraine. The Hungarian agriculture minister, Istvan Nagy, announced an extended ban that would include more products in a Facebook post early Saturday morning, saying that “we will protect the interests of the farmers.”

On Friday, Poland’s president ordered that the ban be kept in place and Slovakia’s ministry of agriculture also announced a continuation of the ban, underlining that it didn’t apply to transit through the country, “thus expressing solidarity with Ukraine.”

Lawmakers in Bulgaria went in the other direction, agreeing on Thursday to resume imports of Ukrainian agricultural products, The Associated Press reported, saying the ban had cut into tax revenue.

The E.U. ban, which was implemented in May and expired at midnight on Friday, covered exports of wheat, maize, rapeseed, and sunflower seeds to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Romania did not immediately comment on the end of the ban.

The ban was a response to concerns from those nations that a flood of cheap, tariff-free food imports from Ukraine was hurting their own farmers. All five had imposed tight restrictions on imports of Ukrainian grain before the E.U. ban came into effect, frustrating officials in Brussels and Kyiv.

Slovakia and Poland have general elections in coming weeks and farmers in both countries, an important voting bloc, have complained vociferously about low prices that they blame on Ukrainian grain seeping into local markets. Poland’s right-wing governing party, Law and Justice, is particularly dependent on rural voters.

Romania, whose ports on the Danube River and Black Sea port of Constanta have made it the biggest transit route for Ukrainian grain exports, had urged the European Union to extend the May embargo but insisted it only wanted to stop cheap Ukrainian produce leaking into the local market, not its transit. With two years to go before it faces voters again, the government in Bucharest is under far less immediate political pressure over the issue than Polish and Slovak authorities.

The pushback against Ukrainian grain imports from Europe’s formerly communist eastern lands has been a rare, and awkward, note of discord on the continent after remarkable European support for Ukraine’s war effort for more than a year after the full-scale Russian invasion of February 2022.

On Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine appeared to address the new bans indirectly in his nightly address, saying it was “important that European unity works on a bilateral level — with the neighbors.”

“Europe always wins when treaties work and promises are kept,” he added. “Well, if the neighbors’ decisions are not neighborly, Ukraine will respond civilly.”

It was not immediately clear early Saturday how the rapid sequence of developments on Ukrainian agricultural exports to Europe would affect markets in Ukraine, Eastern Europe or beyond.

But it was the latest wrinkle in a long list of Ukraine’s grain woes, as fighting has raged around Ukraine’s agricultural heartland and after a huge explosion at the Kakhovka dam caused epic floods downstream and a punishing drought upstream.

This summer, Russia abandoned a deal that allowed Ukraine to safely ship tens of millions of tons of grain via Black Sea ports despite the fighting, raising renewed concerns about a global food crisis. The Russian military has since specifically targeted grain warehouses and port infrastructure around the Black Sea. Dozens of facilities have been destroyed, Ukrainian officials have said, by Russian assault drones. Shortly after the decision, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that ships bound for Ukraine would be considered potential carriers of military cargo.

The Danube ports have in recent months emerged as a new route for Ukrainian grain, accounting for roughly one-third of agricultural exports, including grain, according to industry analysts. These ports, too, have been targeted by Russia.

Last month, the Ukrainian navy announced the creation of temporary corridors for civilian vessels going to and from Ukrainian ports, though it offered no assurances that the ships would be safe from Russian attacks while in Black Sea waters. Since then, several cargo ship that had been stranded in Black Sea ports since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022 have left through the corridor, though none are believe to have carried grain.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said in a statement on X, formerly Twitter, that two cargo vessels had used the corridor to sail into the Black Sea for the first time since its establishment. The two ships were heading into the Chornomorsk port to load almost 20,000 tons of wheat to deliver to Africa and Asia, he said.

His claim could not be independently confirmed, but according to MarineTraffic, a platform that shows the live location of ships around the world, one cargo ship, the “Aroyat,” originated in Turkey and was stopped at the Chornomorsk port six hours after his post. Another, called “Resilient Africa,” had originated in Romania was sailing past Chornomorsk and toward the nearby port of Odesa.

It was not immediately clear how or whether Russia would respond to the Ukrainian announcement. In August, Russian military members forcefully boarded a commercial ship in the Black Sea, in what appears to be the first time Russia has carried out its vow to intercept ships in the waterway.

Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Uman, Ukraine, and Andrew Higgins from Chisinau, Moldova.

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