THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing on the recently announced U.S. Government procurement of Ukrainian wheat to address acute food insecurity. Joining us today are USAID Deputy Administrator for Policy and Programming Isobel Coleman and the State Department’s head of the Office of Sanctions Coordination, Ambassador Jim O’Brien. My name is Wes Robertson, and I am the moderator for today’s briefing.
And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We will post a transcript and video of this briefing later today on our website, which is fpc.state.gov. Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and the media outlet you represent.
Deputy Administrator Coleman will now give opening remarks, followed by Ambassador O’Brien, then we will open it up for questions. Over to you, Deputy Administrator Coleman.
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Thank you, and thank you all so much for joining us here this morning. This is such an important topic and I’m really delighted to be able to address it with all of you.
As you’re well aware, soon after Russia invaded Ukraine it became obvious that this wasn’t just a war on Ukraine but also a war on the poorest countries around the world. The war pushed an already serious food security situation into a full blown crisis. As the conflict escalated, we watched brave Ukrainian farmers don flak jackets to plant their spring crops, but months later when they went to harvest those crops they were – had no way to get them out as exports due to the Black Sea ports being blockaded as part of this war.
Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine was the fourth-largest commercial exporter of wheat and one of the World Food Programme’s top suppliers of grain. Russia’s effective blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has trapped more than 20 million tons of Ukrainian grain inside the country for months, exacerbating the most severe food crisis the world has seen in decades.
On Monday, a World Food Programme chartered ship transported 23,000 metric tons of wheat, the first humanitarian shipment of Ukrainian grain out of the Black Sea, supported by USAID, also the Howard Buffett Foundation and the Minderoo Foundation. This first-of-its-kind shipment will support the humanitarian response in places with acute needs, including the Horn of Africa, where a historic drought is pushing millions of people to the brink of starvation.
This freeing of critical food supplies trapped in Ukrainian ports is crucial, but the sheer scale of the hunger crisis is so immense that what is needed is for these shipments to continue so that tens of thousands of tons of grain trapped in the port can reach markets and help feed the most vulnerable. That’s why we’ve announced $68 million in additional funding for the UN World Food Programme to purchase, move, and store up to 150,000 metric tons of Ukrainian wheat to support ongoing emergency food assistance in countries facing severe food crises. And this funding will support several more WFP maritime shipments out of Ukraine.
USAID’s grain purchases come just weeks after the UN announced that it had reached this agreement between Ukraine and Russia, with Turkey, too, to resume these grain exports through the Black Sea, and we are actively exploring all options to help get more grains onto the market as well as focus on scaling up emergency food operations in countries impacted most severely by the food security crisis.
Just to note, in addition we are – we’ve launched a new $100 million resilience initiative for agriculture in Ukraine, and we’re working on freeing up critical food supplies trapped in – not only in the ports, but moving them out through land routes, and my colleague Jim O’Brien can talk about that too.
We are responding at scale and speed to help those most in need, but far more resources are needed, and this will truly have to be a global response. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thank you, Isobel. I’ll just add a few notes to this. As Isobel noted, Russia’s invasion came at a time that the world already faced enormous food insecurity – damage caused by climate change, by the COVID pandemic, the conflict around the world, and just rising costs. So we knew that this invasion would create enormous insecurity globally. So we’ve got more than $5.6 billion the U.S. is spending to address the long-term and the acute nature of food insecurity, and this is a particularly important – I think it’s going to be a turning point in the way that we’re addressing the acute issues today.
So a few things on this. The first is that since the invasion of Ukraine, we’ve worked very hard to get Ukrainian grain back to market. In the first month after Russia invaded, Ukraine normally would have exported 5-6 million tons of wheat, corn, sunflower oil, and other grain. It exported about 100,000 tons. That number slowly went up – and largely because of heroic efforts by Ukrainian farmers and officials, and our European partners, along with our work, we’ve seen about 2.5 million tons of Ukrainian grain go out each month. So all told it’s about 6-8 million tons of Ukrainian grain in the last three months has made it out across land routes or down through the Danube. And that’s been a huge effort to get more grain on the global market, and you’ve seen prices stabilize and now start to drop.
What Isobel has announced – the first humanitarian shipment out of Odesa – is truly significant because Ukrainian wheat normally goes out through Odesa. And it’s about half or – between a third and a half of what WFP distributes on a humanitarian basis each year.
So this announcement is part of WFP announcing to both the media around the world that it is back in the market for Ukrainian grain; it also tells to Ukrainian farmers that their single largest customer over the last five years is back buying their wheat. And that’s enormously important for this year but also for next year because those farmers have to decide whether they will go back in the field and plant again. And now they know that their largest customer is buying because it’s – this is what WFP exists to do, is buy this grain for humanitarian purposes.
So since in the last month we’ve gotten about 8 million tons of Ukrainian grain to market, Odesa is now open, and now the single largest purchaser for humanitarian purposes is back in the market. So it’s a huge moment, and I congratulate my colleagues, but I think WFP as well deserves credit for doing it.
Now, we knew that as well that the – our response to Russia’s invasion would be substantial economic sanctions on Russia, but we knew that others would be affected. And so we’ve been very careful to see that global markets can still function. We do not sanction Russian food and fertilizer. We know that there are sometimes confusions caused when payment mechanisms or longtime habits get disrupted.
But on that, two points. One point is that we are taking – or we’re making extensive efforts to provide help for anyone who has felt unable to purchase food or fertilizer because of these changes. So we’ve engaged through the UN, through the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme, and others to speak directly to countries that have said that they traditionally buy Russian food and fertilizer. We just had a State and Treasury team in Senegal this week to address any lingering concerns. And I have to say what we are seeing is that most buyers easily either found solutions or found other product. If we look at the trends over time, Russian exports this year appear to track with what their exports were per year.
So our goal of seeing Russia remain an important provider, I think that is in fact what is happening. And what we are trying to do is to be sure that the countries across the globe who rely upon Russia for grain are able to get access to it. But as well now with this announcement today, the countries and the World Food Programme, which have relied upon Ukraine for substantial amounts of grain, are now in a much better position than they were a few weeks ago.
So with that, I’ll turn it back over to the questions. Thanks.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much. If you have questions, please go to the participant field and virtually raise your hand. We will call on you, and you can unmute yourself and ask your question. You can also submit questions in the chat box. If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet. I will say we’re very short on time today so we’ll try to move through questions as quickly as possible.
We do have some that were submitted in advance. The first one is from Ra Gore from Free Eurasia Media. He asks: “Does the United States Government have any forecast wheat sales data or sales history information on which countries plan to purchase or have made transactions to purchase Ukrainian wheat? The problem is that Russian spreads fake – spreads news fake or unverified that it is not African nations but European countries – Italy, Spain, et cetera – that purchase Ukrainian wheat. Thanks for your answer.”
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Thanks, I’ll start with that question. A lot of the grain that is moving right now has been prebought. I mean it – some of it was loaded in ships for months waiting to go out, so some of that is already among the first that’s moving. But as you heard Jim note, the World Food Programme has been the largest customer – single customer – for Ukrainian grains over the last five years, and it is now back, partly with our funding. And you’re going to see more and more of this grain hopefully moving and going to places where it is most acutely needed in the world. The next 150,000 metric tons that USAID has funded is set to be going to places around the Horn of Africa where there’s significant drought and food insecurity. Some of that it be stored Djibouti for distribution immediately after, as necessary.
So the – and I think the main point to keep in mind is that any of this food coming out of the Black Sea ports, because grains are global commodities, it helps bring overall prices down and relieves pressure on all countries around the world on the food insecurity that they’re facing.
Jim, I don’t know if you have anything more you want to add on that.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Nope, that’s good answer.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. Our next question will go from – will come from Oskar Gorzynski from the Polish Press Agency. Oskar, if you’d like to unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Hello. Hi, thanks for doing this. I hope you can hear me well.
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Okay. So we’re hearing from reports from sources in Congress that the Department of State is discouraging the passage of the bill designating Russia as state sponsor of terrorism on the basis that it would harm the grain export deal agreement. Can you confirm that and maybe elaborate why you think that – why you think that would happen?
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Jim, I’ll leave this one to you.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: I think we’re in discussions with Ukrainians and with members of Congress about increasing our sanctions on Russia. So our plan is to keep rolling out more and more sanctions as long as Putin continues his unjustified invasions. There are a lot of issues about which kinds of sanctions and in what sequence, and so we’re working our way through those. And that’s the context in which I think – the article you referred to, I think, got some of it, not all of it, but I think it’s in the context of this wider discussion about the strategy going forward.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you.
QUESTION: But can you comment on – that you are worried – I mean, are you worried about the potential impact on this grain agreement?
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Well, I think we are always aware that Russia will react in some way when people resist its aggressions. So in that sense, yes. But I think what’s important in my answer that – I want to make clear this is – there’s a wider conversation happening on the approaches we’ll take to Russia. And I think trying to pick out one element ends up being a little misleading.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go ahead and go on to our next question. Our next question will be from Dmitry Anopchenko from INTER TV, Ukraine. Please go ahead, sir, and unmute yourself.
QUESTION: Oh, yeah. Good morning. Thank you, Foreign Press Center, for organizing this. You always giving us the right person at the right time. And there are two questions, please.
Ms. Coleman, couple – like a week ago, Ambassador Power, speaking to CNN, told that United States has started – I’m quoting – working on so called “Plan B” to get grain export out of the Ukraine. And Ambassador Power told the Biden administration could not count to – afford to trust Russian President Vladimir Putin again. So could you tell us a little bit more about this Plan B? And you mentioned the roads, you mentioned the railroads. Is it so?
And Ambassador O’Brien, I’m covering this issue for a long time from the very beginning. And, sir, my question: State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told that the U.S. is focusing on holding Russia accountable for implementing the deal. I know you never announcing the new sanctions; it’s a policy. But can you tell just more broadly, is some price for Russia if it will try to break the deal on the table? Or do you have even the internal discussion for some price of Russia if Moscow will try to break the deal? Thank you.
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Thank you for that question. I will just say that when you’re dealing with Russia, I think you always need a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D. I wouldn’t trust the Russians on many things at this point. So I think it is smart for us to be looking at all different ways to get these crucial grains out of Ukraine. As Jim noted up front, the USAID and the State Department have been working tirelessly to increase the amount of food that can be exported via rail, and as I’m sure you’re well aware, there are infrastructure problems with different gauge sizes and storage facilities and all sorts of things.
So USAID, as I noted up top, we have launched this AGRI Ukraine initiative, which is to really help farmers have confidence that they’re going to be able to have a robust season in the years to come. And that includes making sure that they have inputs to fertilizer and seeds, that they have the credit that they need, but they also have a multitude of export mechanisms, not only relying on the Black Sea but also on addressing some of the infrastructure problems around the railways and being able to increase throughput by rail and road.
And as Jim noted, the amount of food exports going out via rail and road through Europe has exceeded expectations. It really has increased, and it has been through tireless work with the State Department and private sector actors and European countries in easing access across border points and addressing some of the infrastructure issues. But all of this needs to continue. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Yeah. I think maybe a couple of points as well. And I just want to reinforce what Isobel just said – for Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova even, they have really stepped up to get more Ukrainian grain to global markets.
Now, in terms of looking for the implementation of the UN deal and how we might follow that up, I think the most important point is to emphasize how much it’s in Russia’s interest to adhere to this deal. It was pretty striking that Foreign Minister Lavrov walked out of a meeting of G20 foreign ministers because everyone in the room pointed out that it was Russia’s invasion that was stopping grain from getting to global markets. So Russia knows that if it now tries to stop Ukrainian grain after almost 600,000 tons has been peacefully and smoothly exported, it will emphasize again that Russia is causing the global food security crisis right now. But that’s in their interests.
In addition, Russia is looking for some help from the global markets to lower its costs and export in different ways. And the main reason that insurance companies and shipping companies don’t want to engage with certain Russian actors is that Russia took a very aggressive posture in the Black Sea at the start of the invasion. So it’s on Russia, for its own interests, to work to see that this arrangement continues peacefully. And I think we’re trying to drive that point home to Russia in every way that we can. And I think with the secretary general in the region just now, it’s another opportunity for Russia to be aware that the world’s watching that it live up to its word, and that word will matter not just for Ukrainian grain and the people who will benefit from that, but from Russia’s own exports of grain.
And in this regard, I’ll just make one last note where we are a bit concerned that the occupying – Russian occupiers in Ukraine have stolen some Ukrainian grain. That’s not going to the places the WFP would take it. That’s going to Russia’s friends. Like there was one ship that went to Syria rather than going to, as it normally would, half to the WFP and half to places like even China and North Africa, Iran. Those would normally have been the places to get the grain. But instead, Russia is stealing it and sending it to its political allies. And I think those are the kinds of impacts that Russia’s invasion is having and that we’re trying to fix with programs like the one Isobel announced today.
MODERATOR: I know we have a number of additional questions, but I’m afraid that we have run out of time. Deputy Administrator Coleman has a hard stop and has another engagement she needs to go to. So this concludes our briefing. I want to give a special thanks to Deputy Administrator Coleman and Ambassador O’Brien for sharing their time with us today and for those of you who participated.
DEPUTY ADMINISTRATOR COLEMAN: Thank you. Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you and –
AMBASSADOR O’BRIEN: Thanks, everyone.