Black Sea grain deal in peril as UN, Turkey await Russia response

UN and Turkish officials in Istanbul awaiting response from Russia as last cargo ship carrying Ukrainian grain leaves Odesa.

Commercial vessels including vessels which are part of Black Sea grain deal wait to pass the Bosphorus strait off the shores of Yenikapi in Istanbul
Commercial vessels, including ships that are part of the Black Sea grain deal, wait to pass the Bosporus Strait off the shores of Yenikapi in Istanbul, Turkey on October 31, 2022 [File: Mehmet Emin Calsikan/Reuters]

A United Nations and Turkey-brokered pact that allowed the export of Ukrainian grain via the Black Sea is set to expire on Monday if Russia does not agree to extend it.

The last cargo ship cleared by the pact’s signatories left Ukraine on Sunday and was headed across the Black Sea from the port of Odesa towards Turkey, according to the Marine Traffic website.

There was no word from talks in Istanbul, where Turkish and UN officials were trying to persuade Moscow to agree to another extension of the deal.

The Russian TASS news agency quoted UN sources as saying they were still hopeful that the agreement would be extended before its expiration at midnight Istanbul time (21:00 GMT).

“We are still waiting on Moscow, anything is possible,” the source told TASS.

First signed in July 2022, the Black Sea Grain Initiative was negotiated to ease a global food crisis worsened by Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.

Russia and Ukraine are among the world’s top grain exporters and their conflict as well as a Russian blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports sent food prices soaring across the globe.

The Black Sea Initiative has allowed Ukraine to export nearly 33 million metric tonnes of corn, wheat and other grains. Russian officials, however, say there are no grounds for extending the pact, claiming their demands to improve Russia’s own grain and fertiliser exports have not been met.

Moscow has also complained that not enough grain has reached poor countries.

But the UN has argued that the arrangement has benefitted those states by helping lower food prices by more than 20 percent globally.

The global body has said its World Food Programme (WFP) has procured 80 percent of its wheat so far in 2023 from Ukraine – up from 50 percent in 2021 and 2022.

The WFP has shipped about 725,000 metric tonnes of Ukrainian wheat to Afghanistan, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Yemen to fight hunger. The organisation said the deal so far has supplied grain to 45 countries in three continents – 46 percent to Asia, 40 percent to Western Europe, 12 percent to Africa and 1 percent to Eastern Europe.

Russia has agreed three times in the past year to extend the Black Sea deal, but also briefly suspended its participation at the end of October in response to a drone attack on its fleet in Crimea.

To convince Russia to agree to the Black Sea Initiative, a three-year deal was also struck in July 2022 under which UN officials agreed to help Russia get its food and fertiliser exports to foreign markets.

While Russian exports of food and fertiliser are not subject to Western sanctions imposed after the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has said restrictions on payments, logistics and insurance have amounted to a barrier to shipments.

A key Russian demand has been for the Russian Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank) to be reconnected to the SWIFT international payments system. The bank was cut off from SWIFT by the European Union in June 2022 over Russia’s invasion.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a final effort on Tuesday to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the Black Sea deal for several months in exchange for the EU connecting a subsidiary of Rosselkhozbank to SWIFT for grain and fertiliser transactions, the Reuters news agency said.

Guterres is still waiting for a response from Putin, according to a UN spokesperson.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that Moscow had already begun talking to Turkey about a plan to ensure that its wheat – possibly processed by Turkey – reaches countries in need regardless of the Black Sea deal’s fate.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies