Ukraine and Russia on Friday signed a landmark agreement aimed at overcoming the global food crisis caused by the Black Sea grain blockage, ending months of negotiations and lowering wheat prices to levels last seen before Moscow’s invasion.
The first major deal between the warring parties since the February invasion of Ukraine should help ease the “acute hunger” that the United Nations says is affecting an additional 47 million people because of the war.
Animosity between Moscow and Kyiv spilled over into the signing ceremony, which was briefly delayed by disputes over flying flags around the table and Ukraine’s refusal to put its name on the same document as the Russians.
The two sides eventually signed separate but identical agreements in the presence of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Istanbul’s sumptuous Dolmabahce Palace.
“Today there is a lighthouse on the Black Sea – a beacon of hope, a beacon of opportunity, a beacon of relief,” Guterres said minutes before the signing.
Farmer Sergei displays grain in his barn in the village of Ptichye, east of Donetsk, Ukraine, June 12, 2022. Source: AP / Ephraim Lukatsky/AP
Mr Erdogan – who has good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv, said the deal “hopes to revive the path to peace.”
But Ukraine entered the ceremony by explicitly warning that it would mount an “immediate military response” if Russia violated the agreement and attacked its ships or invaded its ports.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky later said that the responsibility for the implementation of the deal would fall on the UN, which, along with Turkey, is a co-guarantor of the agreement.
20 million tons of wheat
The agreement contains clauses regarding the movement of Ukrainian grain carriers along safe corridors that avoid known mines in the Black Sea.
Vast quantities of wheat and other grains have been blocked in Ukrainian ports by Russian warships and anti-personnel mines that Kyiv has planted to prevent an amphibious attack.
Mr. Zelenskiy said about 20 million tons of last year’s and current crop’s produce would be exported under the agreement, with Ukraine’s grain stocks valued at around $10 billion (AU$14 billion).
After the deal, wheat prices fell to levels last seen before the Russian invasion, even as some analysts were skeptical of the deal.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Kremlin state media after attending the signing ceremony that he expects the deal to start working “in the next few days.”
He pointed out that Russia managed to obtain from Washington and Brussels a separate promise to remove all restrictions on the export of its own grain and other agricultural products.
The US and European countries welcomed the agreement, urging Moscow to abide by its rules.
A US official said the deal was “well structured” enough to be monitored by Russia.
The European Union has called for “immediate implementation” of the deal, with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss saying London “will see to it that Russia’s actions are in line with its words.”
Diplomats expect that the grain will begin to arrive in full only by mid-August.
The four parties should first set up a joint command and control center in Istanbul to monitor the passage of ships and resolve disputes.
They have yet to finalize how the ships will be checked for weapons before returning empty to Ukrainian ports.
Ukrainian farmers, watching their silos fill up with grain they can’t sell via Istanbul, are cautiously hopeful.
“It gives some hope, but you can’t trust what the Russians say,” said farmer Nikolai Zaveruha.
Its silos were already filled with 13,000 tons of grain and were in danger of overflowing because this year’s harvest was just starting to arrive.
“Russia is unreliable, they show themselves year after year,” he told AFP in the southern Mykolaiv region.
Global anxiety over this grain has been accompanied by European fears that Russia is beginning to use its stranglehold on energy exports as a geopolitical weapon in its confrontation with the West.
The grain deal was signed a day after Russia’s resumption of the Nord Stream gas pipeline eased Europe’s concerns about its permanent shutdown after a 10-day maintenance suspension.
Analysts say a partial resumption of gas supplies has not been enough to prevent a power shortage in Europe this winter.
More US military aid
The ornate halls of Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace seemed far from the war zone in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass in another day of incessant shelling at the front.
Russia is trying to move deeper into the war zone in the Donetsk region after gaining full control over neighboring Luhansk.
On Friday, the United States signed another $270 million in military aid to Ukraine, including missile systems, artillery ammunition and armored command posts.
The Ukrainian president said that five people were killed and 10 injured in Russian shelling of the Donetsk region the day before.
In the Donetsk village of Chasov Yar, hit by shelling on July 10 that killed more than 45 people, Lyudmila, 64, was picking apricots near the rubble.
“There is nothing more. The officials are gone. We have to stand up for ourselves to stay alive,” she said, giving only her first name.
Military casualties on both sides remain speculative after Russia’s February 24 invasion.
US and British intelligence chiefs believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has suffered more losses than expected.
In recent weeks, Ukraine’s war effort has been especially helped by the US delivery of precision-guided weapons that allow Kyiv to destroy Russian weapons depots at long range.