BRUSSELS — After three months of talks that often seemed doomed to fail, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on Friday to free more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in Ukraine’s blocked Black Sea ports, a deal with global implications for the economy. lowering high food prices and alleviating shortages and a deepening hunger crisis.
Senior United Nations officials said the first shipments from Odessa and neighboring ports were just weeks away and they could quickly bring five million tons of Ukrainian food to global markets each month, freeing up storage space for Ukraine’s fresh harvests. The difference is perhaps most noticeable in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, which relies heavily on Ukrainian and Russian grain.
The breakthrough, brokered 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 any closer to peace. While government ministers signed the agreement in an ornate room in Istanbul, with their country’s flags side by side, their troops continued to kill and maim each other several hundred kilometers away.
“This agreement did not come easy,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the signing ceremony, calling the deal a “beacon in the Black Sea.”
But Stephen E. Flynn, founding director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University, warned it would be difficult to quickly deliver food where it’s needed most. The mechanics of transporting grain across the Black Sea under wartime conditions with little or no trust between the warring factions is exceedingly complex.
“It won’t be fast,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether the deal works as planned. Since both sides deeply mistrust each other, there will be plenty of opportunities for the agreement to fail.
In Istanbul, Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, reiterated Russia’s promise not to use the process of grain exports from Ukraine to its military advantage. “We have made this commitment,” he said.
As fighting continues in eastern and southern Ukraine, the White House on Friday announced $270 million in weapons and other aid to Ukraine, bringing the total since the war started to about $7 billion. The latest batch includes HIMARS rocket launchers and ammunition, and ammunition for howitzers and drones.
President Vladimir V. Putin’s attack on Ukraine and the West’s sanctions against Russia have had global economic repercussions, hampered trade, contributed to inflation, a looming recession and disruptive markets, especially for energy.
Understanding the war between Russia and Ukraine better
But the Russian blockade of Odessa and other ports has had some of the most serious global impacts, undermining a global food distribution network already strained by poor harvests, drought, pandemic-related disruptions and climate change. Western officials accused Mr Putin of using hunger as a lever to ease sanctions.
Ukraine is one of the world’s granaries, a leading exporter of wheat, barley, maize and sunflower, but supplies plummeted after the outbreak of war. Exports from Russia, another major supplier, also fell.
Prices for basic foodstuffs in world markets skyrocketed – wheat cost about 50 percent more in May than in February. Prices have since fallen back to pre-war levels, but those levels were high after rising steadily in the year and a half before the invasion, and stocks are low due to the coronavirus pandemic. The United Nations warned of possible famine and political unrest.
“Removing these blockages will help somewhat in reducing the extreme hunger that more than 18 million people in East Africa face, and 3 million people are already facing catastrophic starvation conditions,” said Shashwat Saraf, the East Africa Emergency Director of the International Rescue Committee. a statement.
The deal struck in Istanbul provides for a logistically complex operation to export Ukrainian grain through Turkey, as well as providing UN guarantees to help Russia export its own grain and fertilizer.
Kiev and Moscow agreed little during the war; peace talks came to nothing and have been put aside for the time being. The two sides have conducted several prisoner exchanges and have occasionally agreed on humanitarian evacuations from devastated cities, but always after false starts and mutual accusations of bad faith.
But Friday’s pact marked the first time 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’s compliance with this arrangement and the effective implementation of its commitments,” said National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.
“Russia’s word is never good enough on its face,” 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 barges, pushing Ukrainian food exports to nearly 3 million tons a month – still well below pre-war levels, but much more than in the past. start of the war. Even if sea shipments resume, it could take up to four months to clear the grain backlog.
The deal with Istanbul will expire after 120 days, officials said, but could be extended on a rolling basis.
It contains an explicit commitment that the civilian ships involved, as well as the port facilities used for the operations, will not be attacked, but that could be a weak guarantee, and the ships, operating in a war zone, could still be in danger. walk .
There will be no broader maritime ceasefire and a senior UN official said the Russians have not promised not to attack parts of Ukraine’s ports not directly used for grain exports.
Under the agreement, Ukrainian captains will steer the ships carrying grain from Odessa and the neighboring ports of Chernomorsk and Yuzhne through safe passages mapped by the Ukrainian navy, to avoid the mines Ukraine has laid to destroy a feared Russian amphibious thwart attack.
A joint command center with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials will be established in Istanbul from Saturday, UN officials said. Teams from all three countries and the United Nations will jointly inspect the ships in Turkish ports, both on arrival from Ukraine and on departure, primarily to ensure that they do not carry weapons back to Ukraine after unloading their grain. .
Mr Guterres praised Ukraine, Russia and Turkey for working together to secure the breakthrough.
“Since the war started, I have emphasized that there is no solution to the global food crisis without full global access to Ukrainian food products and Russian food and fertilizers,” he said. “Today we took important steps to achieve this goal. But it has been a long road.”
The breakthrough is a coup for both Mr Guterres and Mr Erdogan, who has positioned himself as a mediator, on good terms with Mr Putin and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
The deal seemed unlikely two weeks ago, after a series of intense meetings, with the two sides questioning each other’s motives and blaming each other for the stalemate.
An early proposal called for the removal of mines, which Ukraine objected to, and having an international fleet to escort the grain ships. A major step forward came when Ukraine agreed to let its own captains steer the ships instead during the first leg of their voyages, and the idea of a military escort was scrapped. That made it more of a civilian operation, allaying concerns that it might trigger a hostile episode.
Getting Russia on board took longer, officials said. The United Nations had to convince private shipping and insurance companies that they could transport Russian food and fertilizers, which are not directly blocked by Western sanctions, without jeopardizing other sanctions.
The final piece of the puzzle came on Thursday, when the European Union released legally binding clarifications that banks, insurers and other companies were allowed to participate in the export of Russian grains and fertilizers, and that the sanctions would not affect Russia’s main port of Novorossiysk. on the Black Sea. Senior UN officials said these guarantees were enough to convince the private sector to re-engage in Russia’s grain trade.
“Today we have all the conditions and all the solutions to start this process in the coming days,” Mr Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, who signed the agreement in Istanbul, told reporters afterwards.
Global grain markets reacted immediately to the news of the deal. The price of wheat futures fell more than 5 percent on Friday to about $760 a bushel.
Reporting contributed by Anton Trojanovskic, Valerie Hopkins, Dan Bilefsky, Joe Rennison and Patricia Cohen.