By Margaret Besheer
In a major breakthrough, Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement in Istanbul Friday that aims to get millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to world markets and ease a growing food crisis for millions in the developing world.
“You have overcome obstacles and put aside differences to pave the way for an initiative that will serve the common interests of all,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Russian and Ukrainian representatives at the signing, acknowledging that “this agreement did not come easy.”
“Promoting the welfare of humanity has been the driving force of these talks,” he said. “The question has not been what is good for one side or the other,” Guterres said. “The focus has been on what matters most for the people of our world. And let there be no doubt – this is an agreement for the world.”
Ukraine is a leading grain exporter, producing enough to feed 400 million people a year, but about 20 million tons of its grain has been trapped for months in silos and on ships blockaded by Russia in the Black Sea.
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, and Ukraine’s infrastructure minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, took turns at the table signing the deal, known as the Black Sea Initiative. It was also signed by Turkey’s defense minister and the U.N. secretary-general, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looked on.
“This joint step we are taking today in Istanbul, together with Russia and Ukraine, will be a new turning point that will revive the hopes for peace, this is my sincere hope,” Erdogan said. He said he hoped the “friendly and peaceful atmosphere” built on the Black Sea Initiative could eventually lead to transformative steps to end the war.
The initial agreement is for 120 days, but a U.N. official said it would have to continue as long as the war does.
The United Nations has been working for months with Ukrainian and Russian officials on two parallel tracks: one to lift the Russian blockade on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea ports, the other to facilitate unimpeded access for Russian food and fertilizer to world markets. Russia is also a leading grain exporter and the top global fertilizer producer. Since the war, the price of fertilizer on the global market has doubled, in turn driving up the cost of crops.
Just before the public signing of the grain deal, the U.N. chief and the Russian defense minister privately signed a memorandum of understanding to address the disruptions to the trade of Russian food and fertilizer.
The framework agreed to in Istanbul could see Ukrainian ships begin to move again within the next few weeks as the ports of Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny come online and a joint coordination center is rapidly set up in Istanbul to monitor the operation.
The U.N. says 276 million people were severely food insecure before Russia’s February 24 invasion; now officials project the number to be 345 million. It is expected that the deal will bring relief to millions who have been struggling with rising food prices as a result of the war.
How it will work
Ukraine will continue as it did before the war to handle the internal logistics of getting its grain from its fields and silos to the ports.
Ukraine has mined its territorial waters, and under the deal, it will help guide commercial cargo ships carrying its grain through “safe corridors,” which, a U.N. official said, is a faster solution than the months it could take to de-mine the waters.
The official said cargo ships will be inspected as they enter Ukrainian ports to be sure they are not bringing in any weapons shipments, as well as when they exit, by teams of Ukrainian, Russian and Turkish monitors, who will be part of an Istanbul-based Joint Coordination Center.
Turkey plays an important role in the operation, as the ships will pass from the Black Sea out through the Bosphorus.
Both parties have pledged not to attack any ships that have been identified as sailing under the deal through the safe corridors. The U.N. official said if there is an incident, it would fall to the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) to resolve it. The official said the JCC would be the “heartbeat” of the operation.
The package deal helps Russia overcome obstacles for the sale of its fertilizer and food products. While U.S. and European sanctions on Moscow do not include those exports, the private sector has been hesitant to work with the Russians, fearful of running afoul of the sanctions.
The U.N. will now set up a team to follow up and coordinate with countries and the private sector.
“This task team will be focused on addressing the disruptions to the food and fertilizer trade largely due to the de-risking and overcompliance of the private sector, particularly in the sectors of finance, insurance and logistics,” U.N. Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters. He said this effort is fully coordinated with the grain initiative.
The Americans contend that Moscow is holding back its exports on purpose as part of its disinformation campaign about Western sanctions.
“When in fact there are no sanctions on their agricultural products, there are no sanctions on their fertilizer,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Congress this week. “They can move their agricultural products; they can move their wheat if they wanted to do it. But they would prefer to blame the rest of the world, thinking that that will get them more support from the world, and I think they have failed.”
“We welcome this deal and hope it will help mitigate the crisis Russia has caused,” Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said in tweet Friday. “But we will be watching closely to ensure that Russia actually follows through on its commitments.”
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kulebo, also welcomed the agreement and said in a tweet Friday that he would “count on the UN to ensure proper implementation.”
The British foreign secretary, Liz Truss, welcomed the agreement and urged the Kremlin to implement it.
“The UK and our allies have been pushing hard to reach this point. Now this agreement must be implemented, and we will be watching to ensure Russia’s actions match its words,” Truss said in a statement. “To enable a lasting return to global security and economic stability, Putin must end the war and withdraw from Ukraine.”
Aid organizations also welcomed the deal, but said it is only one part of solving the growing global food crisis.
“If respected and enacted in good faith, today’s deal to protect Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea will help ease grain shortages, but let’s be clear – this will not end or significantly alter the trajectory of the worsening global food crisis,” Mercy Corps Chief Executive Tjada D’Oyen McKenna said in a statement.
“A deal that allows grain to leave Black Sea ports is nothing short of life-saving for people across the world who are struggling to feed their families,” said International Committee of the Red Cross Director-General Robert Mardini, but he noted that efforts must continue to tame skyrocketing food prices in places like Sudan where they have shot up 187% in the past six months.