Russia agrees to let Ukraine ship grain, easing global food shortage


BRUSSELS – After three months of talks that often seemed doomed, Russia and Ukraine on Friday signed an agreement to release more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine’s blocked Black Sea ports, a deal to the global implications for bringing down high food prices and alleviating shortages and a worsening hunger crisis.

Senior United Nations officials said the first shipments from Odessa and nearby ports were just weeks away and could quickly bring five million tons of Ukrainian food to the world market each month, freeing up storage space for fresh crops from Ukraine. The difference could be felt most powerfully in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, which relies heavily on Ukrainian and Russian grains.

The breakthrough, negotiated with the help of the United Nations and Turkey, is the most significant compromise between the warring nations since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but it does not bring them closer to peace. As government ministers signed the accord in an ornate hall in Istanbul, with their countries’ flags lined up together, a few hundred miles away, their troops continued to kill and maim each other.

“This agreement has not been easy,” said António Guterres, the UN secretary general, during the signing ceremony, calling the agreement “a beacon in the Black Sea”.

But Stephen E. Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, warned that getting food quickly to where it’s needed most would be difficult. The mechanics of transporting grain across the Black Sea under conditions of war with little or no trust between warring parties are extremely complex.

“It won’t go fast,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the deal works out as intended. Since each party is deeply suspicious of the other, there will be many chances that the agreement will fall through.

In Istanbul, Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu reiterated Russia’s commitment not to use Ukraine’s grain export process to its military advantage. “We made that commitment,” he said.

As fighting still rages in eastern and southern Ukraine, the White House on Friday announced $270 million in arms and other aid to Ukraine, bringing the total since the start of the war at around $7 billion. The latest batch includes HIMARS rocket launchers and ammunition, as well as howitzer and drone ammunition.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s assault on Ukraine and the West’s sanctions on Russia have had global economic repercussions, hampering trade, contributing to inflation, threatening recession and upsetting markets, especially for energy.

But Russia’s blockade of Odessa and other ports has produced some of the most serious global consequences, undermining a global food distribution network that was already strained by crop failures, drought, pandemic-related disruptions and climate change. Western officials have accused Mr Putin of using hunger as leverage to ease sanctions.

Ukraine is one of the breadbaskets of the world, a leading exporter of wheat, barley, maize and sunflowers, but its shipments plummeted after the start of the war. Exports from Russia, another major supplier, also fell.

Prices for basic foodstuffs on world markets soared – wheat cost about 50% more in May than in February. Prices have since returned to pre-war levels, but those levels were high, having risen steadily in the year and a half before the invasion, and stocks are low due to the coronavirus pandemic. The United Nations has warned of potential famine and political unrest.

“The lifting of these blockades will go some way to alleviating the extreme hunger faced by more than 18 million people in East Africa, 3 million of whom are already facing catastrophic hunger conditions,” Shashwat said. Saraf, East Africa emergency director for the International Rescue Committee. A declaration.

The deal reached in Istanbul provides for a logistically complex operation to export Ukrainian grain via Turkey, and also offers UN assurances to help Russia export its own grain and fertilizer.

Kyiv and Moscow agreed on very little during the war; peace talks came to nothing and have been shelved for the time being. The two sides carried out several prisoner exchanges and sometimes agreed on humanitarian evacuations from devastated cities, but always after false starts and mutual accusations of bad faith.

But Friday’s pact was the first time that representatives of the warring countries publicly signed an agreement.

“It’s a big step forward,” Mr Flynn said, crediting the Turks with an “elegant approach”.

The White House welcomed the deal, but with a dose of skepticism. Success “will depend on Russia honoring this arrangement and effectively implementing its commitments,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

“Russia’s word is never good enough on the face of it,” he added, and the United States “will be watching very closely.”

Ukraine and other European countries have cobbled together new transport networks using trains, trucks and river barges, pushing Ukrainian food exports to almost 3 million tons a month – still well below current levels. before the war, but much more so than at the beginning of the war. Even with the resumption of shipments by sea, it could take up to four months to clear the grain backlog.

The Istanbul deal will expire after 120 days, officials said, but could be renewed on a rolling basis.

It contains an express commitment that the civilian ships involved, as well as the port facilities used for the operations, will not be attacked, but this could be a tenuous guarantee, and the ships, operating in a war zone, could still be in danger. .

There will be no wider maritime ceasefire, and a senior UN official says the Russians have not pledged not to attack parts of Ukrainian ports that are not directly used for grain exports.

Under the terms of the agreement, Ukrainian captains will direct ships carrying grain out of Odessa and neighboring ports of Chernomorsk and Yuzhne through safe passages mapped by the Ukrainian Navy, to avoid mines that Ukraine has laid to thwart a fearsome Russian amphibious assault.

A joint command center with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials will be set up in Istanbul from Saturday, UN officials said. Teams from the three countries and the United Nations will jointly inspect ships in Turkish ports, upon arrival from Ukraine and upon departure, primarily to ensure they do not bring weapons back to Ukraine after unloading their grain .

Guterres praised Ukraine, Russia and Turkey for working together to secure the breakthrough.

“Since the start of the war, I have stressed that there is no solution to the global food crisis without ensuring full global access to Ukrainian food products and Russian food and fertilizers,” he said. -he declares. “Today we have taken important steps towards achieving this goal. But the road has been long. »

This breakthrough is a coup for Mr. Guterres as well as for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has positioned himself as a mediator, on good terms with Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The deal seemed unlikely just two weeks ago after a series of intense meetings with both sides questioning each other’s motives and blaming each other for the standoff.

An early proposal called for the removal of mines, which Ukraine opposed, and the establishment of an international flotilla to escort grain ships. A key step was taken when Ukraine agreed to have its own captains lead the ships on the first leg of their journey, and the idea of ​​a military escort was dropped. This made it more of a civilian operation, allaying fears that it could trigger a hostile episode.

Russia’s accession took longer, officials said. It took the United Nations convincing private sector shipping and insurance companies that they could transport Russian food and fertilizers, which are not directly prohibited by Western sanctions, without violating other sanctions.

The final piece of the puzzle came on Thursday, when the European Union issued legally binding clarifications that banks, insurers and other companies were allowed to participate in the export of Russian grain and fertilizers, and that its sanctions did not affect the key Russian port of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. Senior UN officials said the assurances were enough to convince the private sector to re-engage in Russia’s grain trade.

“Today we have all the preconditions and all the solutions for this process to be launched in the next few days,” Mr. Shoigu, the Russian Defense Minister, who signed the agreement, told reporters afterwards. Istanbul.

World grain markets reacted immediately to the news of the deal. The price of wheat futures fell more than 5% on Friday to around $760 a bushel.

The report was provided by Anton Troyanovsky, Valerie Hopkins, Dan Bilefsky, Joe Rennison and Patricia Cohen.

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