Ukraine and Russia on Wednesday agreed a two-month extension to a war deal that would allow Ukraine to ship its grain across the Black Sea, a rare example of cooperation between the two countries.
The agreement was due to expire on Thursday. While both sides expressed lingering grievances over the export issue, reaching an agreement appeared to benefit governments in both Kyiv and Moscow, as well as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who acted as a mediator along with the United Nations.
Under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which began last July, Ukraine, a major exporter of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, is able to move grain and other food products along a corridor past Russian naval vessels that have blockaded Ukraine’s ports since the start of the full-scale invasion 15 months ago. The shipments are inspected off the coast of Istanbul, while empty cargo ships are also checked en route to Ukraine’s ports, in part to ensure they do not have any weapons on board.
Grain exports are important to the Ukrainian economy and their resumption also helps to maintain the stability of world food prices, which rose sharply during the first months of the war as grain destined for export piled up in Ukrainian ports and warehouses. The resulting shortages and price increases increased the threat of famine in parts of the Middle East and Africa.
“These agreements are important for global food security,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement, adding that “Ukrainian and Russian products feed the world.” He said talks would continue on unresolved issues, which he did not specify.
The bitterness caused by the war forms the background of the agreement. Russian forces have taken control of farmland in southern and eastern Ukraine, and Russian missiles are also targeting Ukraine’s agricultural facilities.
To further insult, Denis Pushilin, the pro-Russian leader of the Donetsk region, which illegally annexed Moscow, said this month that authorities had loaded grain onto a ship in the port of Mariupol. Russian troops decimated the city last spring and occupied it after a siege a year ago.
Ukraine has complained in recent weeks that Russia has prevented required inspections of shipments from the Black Sea and has refused to approve the use of more vessels.
Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said in a Facebook post that despite the extension until July 18, more work needed to be done to address shipping delays that he blamed on Russian “sabotage”.
“We hope that our partners will do their best to make the grain deal fully work for the world’s food security and that Russia will eventually stop using food as a weapon and blackmail,” he wrote.
In the past year, Russia has threatened to withdraw from the agreement several times, arguing that the provisions that allow its own agricultural products and fertilizers to be shipped to world markets are not being followed.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested that the extension of the agreement does not address Russia’s complaints. “The disruptions in the implementation of the deal must be corrected as soon as possible,” she said at a news conference.
While Russian agricultural products are not subject to Western sanctions, some international shipping companies have avoided getting involved in that trade as sanctions have made it more difficult to negotiate financial and insurance deals with Russia.
In fact, trade data shows that grain exports rose last year as Russia reported a record harvest. And while it’s not clear to what extent those exports have been facilitated by the grain deal, analysts say Putin is under pressure from two of his key international partners – Turkey and China – to continue extending it.
The deal also benefits Erdogan, who faces a presidential runoff in 11 days, allowing him to avoid a repeat of last year’s food price spike and project himself to voters as a vital international leader. He made little reference to his role in brokering the deal during the campaign trail, but supporters are proud to see him riding around and interacting with other world leaders, and to that extent, the announcement bolsters his image.
It also highlights Mr. Erdogan’s warm ties with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, which have grown stronger during the war, to the dismay of Turkey’s NATO allies.
Mr Erdogan, who announced the extension in a speech to ruling party officials, called the extension “good news for the whole world”.
According to United Nations data, more than 30 million tons of food have been shipped under the Black Sea Initiative. The original agreement was extended in October and again in March, but the latest extension was for just 60 days, half of the 120 days requested by Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations.
Exports slowed in recent weeks as the expiration date approached, and international aid agencies feared the failure of the deal would affect millions around the world. All in all, Ukrainian grain exports have fallen significantly since the invasion.
Since the Russian blockade began last February, Ukraine has been exploring ways to export more of its crops overland to Eastern and Central Europe. However, those routes can handle much smaller volumes and have also led to backlash among farmers in some countries after Ukrainian grain flooded their markets, driving prices down.
Reporting contributed by Anton Trojanovsky, Ben Hubbard, Farnaz Fassihi And Ivan Nechepurenko.