THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — European Union agriculture ministers met Tuesday to discuss ways of moving grain vital to global food security out of Ukraine after Russia halted a deal that allowed Black Sea exports. At the same time, countries bordering the war-ravaged nation are seeking to protect prices for their farmers.
Germany's agriculture minister, Cem Ozdemir, warned that they must seek to balance those two issues without eroding the 27-nation bloc's support for Ukraine.
If cracks open up in EU unity, "the only one who is happy is Vladimir Putin," he said of Russia's leader.
The ministers met in Brussels for the first time since Russia pulled the plug last week on the wartime deal that allowed grain to flow from Ukraine to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, where hunger is a growing threat and food prices are high.
That leaves routes by river, road and rail through Europe as the only ways for Ukraine, a major global supplier of wheat, barley, corn and vegetable oil, to export its products. But recent attacks are raising questions about a crucial route through the Danube River, which has carried millions of tons of Ukrainian food to Romania's Black Sea ports every month.
The road and rail routes through neighboring countries have stirred anger from local farmers faced with a glut of Ukrainian grain that has driven down prices and hurt their livelihoods. It's not ideal for agriculture-dependent Ukraine either, whose growers face higher transportation costs and lower capacity.
Poland's agriculture minister Robert Telus was set to tell the EU meeting that his country, along with Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, want to extend their ban on Ukrainian grain imports but will still allow food to move through their countries to the world.
The ban is scheduled to expire in mid-September. European Commission spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer said "we are working very intensively with the five member states concerned."
The ministers "must make sure that the Ukrainian grain can reach the global markets via EU territory," said Finland's agriculture minister, Sari Essayah.
Lithuania's agriculture minister, Kęstutis Navickas, suggested that export procedures for grain could be shifted from the Ukraine-Polish border to Lithuanian ports as a way of preventing grain from getting stuck in countries near Ukraine.
Germany's Ozdemir appeared to support the plan, saying Ukrainian grain could be transported in sealed containers to ports in the Baltics.
"I'm sure the friends from the Baltics would be happy to help and then transport to where it's needed in the Global South," Ozdemir said.
European Commission spokesman Adalbert Jahnz said exports via the Baltics are "extremely important ... and we are committed to working on that as well."
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it's up to the Baltic countries to decide on the issue.
"It is a sovereign right of these states, and there is hardly anything for us to assess here," he said. "But it is very important to us that various delivery channels must not be used by the Kiev regime for military purposes and for the purposes by of staging terrorist attacks on our territory. We will continue to counter that."
Over the past several days, Russia has targeted Ukrainian critical grain export infrastructure since it vowed retribution for an attack that damaged a crucial bridge between Russia and the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Russian officials blamed that strike on Ukrainian drone boats.
Ukraine also is seeking to continue exporting grain by sea. It sent a letter to the United Nations International Maritime Organization establishing its own temporary shipping corridor, saying it would "provide guarantees of compensation for damage."
But Russia warned it would assume ships traversing parts of the Black Sea to be carrying weapons to Ukraine. In a seeming tit-for-tat move, Ukraine said vessels heading to Russian Black Sea ports would be considered "carrying military cargo with all the associated risks."