Russia agreed to allow Ukraine to supply grain, reducing global food shortages

BRUSSELS — After three months of negotiations that often seemed doomed, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on Friday to free more than 20 million tons of grain stuck in blocked Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea. shortages and a growing hunger crisis.

With only a few weeks left before the first deliveries from Odessa and neighboring ports, senior United Nations officials said they could quickly ship five million tons of Ukrainian food to the world market every month, freeing up storage space for fresh Ukrainian harvests. The difference may be felt most strongly in the drought-hit Horn of Africa, which relies heavily on Ukrainian and Russian grain.

The breakthrough brokered by the UN and Turkey is the most significant compromise between the warring countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, but it does not bring them closer to peace. While the ministers signed the agreement in an ornate room in Istanbul, with their countries’ flags lined up, several hundred miles away, their troops continued to kill and maim each other.

“This agreement was not 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 Sustainability Institute at Northeastern University, warned that it would be difficult to quickly get food to where it’s needed most. The mechanics of transporting grain across the Black Sea in wartime conditions, with little or no trust between the belligerents, is extremely complex.

“It won’t move fast,” he said.

It remains to be seen if the deal will work out as planned. Since each side deeply suspects the other, there will be many chances that the agreement will fall through.

In Istanbul, Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu repeated Russia’s promise not to use the Ukrainian grain export process for its own military purposes. “We made this commitment,” he said.

With fighting still ongoing in eastern and southern Ukraine, the White House on Friday announced $270 million worth of weapons and other aid to Ukraine, bringing the total since the start of the war to about $7 billion. The latest batch includes HIMARS rocket launchers and ammunition, as well as ammunition for howitzers and drones.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s attack on Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia have had economic repercussions around the world, hindering trade, fueling inflation, threatening recession, and flipping markets, especially in energy.

But the Russian blockade of Odessa and other ports has had some of the most severe global consequences, disrupting a global food distribution network already overwhelmed by crop failures, drought, pandemic-related disruptions and climate change. Western officials have accused Mr. Putin of using the famine as leverage to ease sanctions.

Ukraine is one of the world’s breadbaskets, a leading exporter of wheat, barley, corn, and sunflowers, but its supplies have plummeted since the start of the war. Exports from Russia, another major supplier, also fell.

Prices for basic foodstuffs on world markets rose sharply, with wheat costing about 50 percent more in May than in February. Since then, prices have fallen to pre-war levels, but those levels were high after rising steadily in the year and a half before the invasion, and inventories have dwindled due to the coronavirus pandemic. United Nations warned of a possible famine and political unrest.

“The lifting of these blockades will, to some extent, reduce the extreme hunger that more than 18 million people in East Africa face, with 3 million already facing catastrophic famine conditions,” said Shashwat Saraf, East Africa Emergency Director of the International Rescue Committee. statement.

The Istanbul deal involves the logistically complex operation of exporting Ukrainian grain through Turkey, as well as UN guarantees to help Russia export its own grain and fertilizer.

Kyiv and Moscow agreed very little during the war; peace talks have not led to anything and have been postponed for the time being. Both sides exchanged prisoners on several occasions and from time to time agreed on humanitarian evacuations from the destroyed cities, although always after false starts and mutual accusations of bad faith.

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

“This is a big step forward,” Mr. Flynn said, noting the Turks’ “elegant approach.”

The White House welcomed the deal, but with a grain of salt. Success “will depend on Russia sticking to this deal and actually fulfilling its obligations,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

“The word of Russia is never strong enough,” he added, and the United States “will be watching this very closely.”

Ukraine and other European countries have built new transport networks using trains, trucks and river barges, boosting Ukrainian food exports to almost 3 million tons per month, still well below pre-war levels but much more than at the start of the war. Even with the resumption of shipments by sea, it can take up to four months to close the gap in grain.

The Istanbul Agreement expires in 120 days, officials say, but could be extended permanently.

It contains an explicit undertaking that civilian ships involved, as well as port facilities used for operations, will not be attacked, but this may be a dubious guarantee and ships operating in a war zone may still be at risk. .

There will be no wider maritime ceasefire, and a senior UN official said 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 deal, Ukrainian captains will guide grain ships from Odessa and neighboring ports of Chornomorsk and Yuzhnoye through safe passages mapped by the Ukrainian Navy to avoid mines Ukraine has laid to thwart a dangerous Russian amphibious assault.

From Saturday, a joint command center will be set up in Istanbul with representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN, UN officials said. Teams from all three countries and the UN will jointly inspect ships in Turkish ports, both on their arrival from Ukraine and on their departure, primarily to ensure that they do not carry weapons back to Ukraine after unloading the grain.

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

“From the very beginning of the war, I have emphasized that there is no solution to the global food crisis without ensuring full global access to Ukrainian food and Russian food and fertilizers,” he said. “Today we have taken important steps to achieve this goal. But it’s been a long journey.”

The breakthrough is a coup for Mr. Guterres, as well as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who positions himself as an intermediary, on good terms with Mr. Erdogan. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

A deal seemed unlikely just two weeks ago, after a series of intense meetings where both sides questioned each other’s motives and blamed each other for the stalemate.

The original proposal called for the removal of mines, which Ukraine objected to, and the creation of an international flotilla to escort grain ships. A key step forward was taken when Ukraine instead agreed to have its own captains steer the ships on the first leg of their journey, and the idea of ​​a military escort was abandoned. This made it more of a civilian operation, easing fears that it might provoke a hostile episode.

It took longer for Russia to join, according to officials. It took the United Nations to convince private shipping and insurance companies that they could ship Russian food and fertilizers that are not expressly prohibited by Western sanctions without violating other sanctions.

The final piece of the puzzle appeared on Thursday when the European Union issued legally binding clarifications that banks, insurers and other firms are allowed to participate in Russian grain and fertilizer exports 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 restart the grain trade in Russia.

“Today we have all the prerequisites and all the solutions for this process to be launched in the coming days,” he said. This was later announced to journalists by Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, who signed the agreement in Istanbul.

World grain markets immediately reacted to the news about the deal. Wheat futures fell more than 5 percent on Friday to about $760 a bushel.

Report has been provided Anton Troyanovsky, Valerie Hopkins, Dan Bilefsky, Joe Rennison as well as Patricia Cohen.