Kyiv and Moscow signed an agreement in Istanbul on July 22 ensuring the safety of Ukrainian grain exports, despite apprehensions that the lengthy talks between Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN would fall apart.
Russia fired four Kalibr cruise missiles at the port of Odesa the day after signing off on a deal in Istanbul to guarantee grain shipments would be safeguarded.
The deal will become operational in the next few weeks and unblock up to 25mn tonnes of grain that has been trapped in Ukraine by a Russian Black Sea naval blockade since the start of the war. The agreement will assuage fears of a global food crisis as grain prices soar and some of the world’s poorest countries face a critical lack of food imports.
Nevertheless, distrust of Russia remains high, with Kyiv presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeting a warning before the ceremony that “in case of provocations” Ukraine will respond with “an immediate military response.”
Moreover, Podolyak informed that Ukraine and Russia signed separate deals, the AFP reported, with Podolyak stating that “Ukraine does not sign any documents with Russia.” Instead, Kyiv signed a deal with Turkey and the UN, whilst Russia signed a “mirror” agreement.
The deal, known as the “Black Sea Initiative”, will ensure that Ukrainian grain is safely transported through the Black Sea and will be organised by a control centre in Istanbul consisting of UN, Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials, the AP reported. According to UN Secretary-General Antony Guterres, the deal allows significant food exports from three key Ukrainian ports: Odesa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny, and will be valid for 120 days but is renewable, Reuters reports.
Podolyak emphasised that no Russian representative will be based in Ukraine’s ports and no Russian ships should escort vessels, hitting back at Moscow’s proposal to provide ‘humanitarian maritime corridors’ in May. With Ukraine having mined offshore areas around its ports to protect itself against a Russian attack, Ukrainian pilots will guide the ships safely through its territorial waters.
The breakthrough was welcomed by Guterres, who said it would “stabilise global food prices” and “bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine”, the AP stated.
The main goal of the agreement, which has taken a long arduous road, is to ease the food crisis plaguing many countries across the world. As such, another deal was also signed the same day that will smooth Russian food and fertiliser exports, freeing them from US and European sanctions.
Guterres previously emphasised the global need for Russian food and fertilisers after commenting on the devastating impact of the food crisis in developing nations.
“There is no effective solution to the food crisis without reintegrating Ukraine’s food production, as well as the food and fertiliser produced by Russia and Belarus, into world markets – despite the war,” he said in May. “Russian food and fertilisers must have unrestricted access to world markets without indirect impediments”.
It has taken two months for the agreements to be reached and there was hesitancy earlier this week that the talks could fall apart in the final stages. Nevertheless, with Turkey's persistent mediation, which at times looked set to fail, up to 25mn tonnes of grain will be freed from Ukraine’s silos.
The blockade has severely damaged Ukraine’s agricultural industry, one of its most important sectors, contributing to the country’s economic decline. Ukraine was forced to look for alternatives via neighbouring EU countries, using rail, road and river routes. However, the routes created certain bottlenecks, resulting in a 44% drop in June compared to 2021, with only 1.11mn tonnes of grain exported in the first 22 days.
One of the major problems is that Ukraine’s rail system is of a different gauge to its neighbours, meaning grain has to be transferred to different trains at the border with Poland, protracting the export process. Likewise in Romania, agricultural products have to be exported by rail to the Danube river ports and loaded onto barges to travel to the port of Constanta, which has become a key export hub for Ukrainian grain.
In attempts to find a solution, the US suggested a plan to construct storage facilities for Ukrainian grain on the border with Poland. But this may take up to four months to build, whilst the global food crisis needs to be addressed urgently.
It became clear that the only solution would be the end of the blockade, despite an almost impossible task of co-operation between the two warring nations, with Russia and Ukraine both blaming each other for the blocked shipments. Initially, Ukrainian Agricultural Minister Mykola Solskyi claimed that this could only be achieved through a Russian military defeat.
“This is why we are asking and requesting our partners to give us weapons to do this, to defeat Russia – it’s the only way to solve the problem,” he told the Kyiv Independent earlier this month.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko indirectly suggested in May that Russia will open Ukraine’s ports if the West lifts the sanctions against Russia and Ukraine de-mines its coast. But this was denounced by Washington and Kyiv as “blackmail” by Russia.
With the new deal in place, the US announced its support but emphasised that it will watch Russia’s actions closely.
“What we’re focusing on now is holding Russia accountable for implementing this agreement and for enabling Ukrainian grain to get to world markets. It has been for far too long that Russia has enacted this blockade,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.