BY DAILY SABAH WITH AGENCIES
ISTANBUL JUL 22, 2022
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (L) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sit at the start of the signature ceremony of an initiative on the safe transportation of grain and foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports, in Istanbul, Turkey, July 22, 2022. (AFP Photo)
Kyiv and Moscow on Friday signed landmark agreements with Turkey and the United Nations that will free up Ukrainian Black Sea ports and clear the way for exporting millions of tons of desperately needed Ukrainian grain, as well as Russian grain and fertilizer.
Brokered by Turkey and the U.N., the major breakthrough marks the first step to ending a standoff that threatened world food security and will ease the looming global food crisis while the two countries are at war in Ukraine.
The signing of the deal in Istanbul was overseen by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a key player in the negotiations who has good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv – and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov signed separate deals with Guterres and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
“The deal will prevent billions of people from facing famine and will ease global food inflation,” Erdoğan said. He stressed his hope that the pact will be a turning point, warning that “the war does not only affect the parties involved but the whole of humanity.”
Erdoğan said he hoped the deal would pave the way for eventual peace in Ukraine.
“This joint step we are taking with Ukraine and Russia will hopefully revive the path to peace,” he noted.
Guterres thanked Turkey for its “facilitation and persistence,” stressing that Ankara’s efforts in the process have proved essential.
“Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea,” Guterres said. “A beacon of hope, a beacon of possibility, a beacon of relief in a world that needs it more than ever.”
“You have overcome obstacles and put aside differences to pave the way for an initiative that will serve the common interests of all,” he said, addressing the Russian and Ukrainian representatives.
Ukrainian and Russian military delegations reached a tentative agreement in Istanbul last week on the U.N.-led plan, which seeks to enable Ukraine to export 22 million tons of desperately needed grain and other agricultural products that have been stuck in the Black Sea ports since Moscow’s invasion.
Implementation of the pact will be run by a joint coordination center in Istanbul, Erdoğan said.
Guterres said the plan, known as the “Black Sea Initiative,” would open a path for significant volumes of commercial food exports from three key Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea: Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
It would “bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine,” he stressed.
“It will help stabilize global food prices, which were already at record levels even before the war – a true nightmare for developing countries.”
The U.N. estimates that an additional 47 million people began to face “acute hunger” as a direct consequence of the war.
The U.N. and Turkey, a NATO member and maritime neighbor to both Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea, have been working for two months to broker the deal. Turkey controls the straits leading into the Black Sea and has acted as a mediator on the grain issue.
“A deal that allows grain to leave Black Sea ports is nothing short of lifesaving for people across the world who are struggling to feed their families,” said Red Cross Director-General Robert Mardini, who noted that over the past six months prices for food staples have risen 187% in Sudan, 86% in Syria, 60% in Yemen and 54% in Ethiopia.
In a late-night video address on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hinted his country’s Black Sea ports could soon be unblocked.
Earlier on Friday, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, said Ukraine and Russia would sign separate agreements.
“Ukraine does not sign any documents with Russia,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter, adding that his country would sign an agreement with Turkey and the U.N., with Russia signing a separate “mirror agreement.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Twitter on Thursday that Friday’s meeting in Istanbul marks “the first step to solve the current food crisis.”
Turkey would continue its efforts to resolve the conflict, Çavuşoğlu said. He also told state broadcaster, TRT Haber, that he did not see prospects for a cease-fire but that a deal on the grain exports could boost confidence between the two countries.
The halt to grain exports during the five-month war has caused prices to rise dramatically, and reopening Ukrainian ports may potentially avert famine in parts of the world.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but Russia’s invasion of the country and naval blockade of its ports have halted shipments. Some grain is being transported through Europe by rail, road and river, but the prices of vital commodities like wheat and barley have soared during the nearly five-month war.
The deal makes provisions for the safe passage of ships through the heavily mined waters. A coordination center will be established in Istanbul, staffed by U.N., Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials, to monitor the ships and run the process through specific corridors. Ships would undergo inspections to ensure they are not carrying weapons.
A senior U.N. official said cargo ships would use “safe channels” identified by Ukraine as they sail in and out of ports and would be guided by Ukrainian pilots. The plan does not foresee a further demining of Ukraine’s territorial waters, which would have delayed the process.
No military ships would be used as escorts but a minesweeper would be on standby in case the safe channels “need occasional verification,” the official said.
Ships entering the Ukrainian ports would be scrutinized by inspection teams that would include representatives of all parties involved to make sure there are no weapons on board. The unloading of grain onto the vessels will also be monitored.
A key element of the deal is an agreement by both Russia and Ukraine that there will be no attacks on any of the vessels, according to the official.
It will take a few weeks before the deal is fully working, the official noted, saying Ukraine needs about 10 days to get the ports ready and also needs time to “identify and be clear about those safe corridors.”
An initial movement of ships could be possible before then “just to show that they can work,” the official said.
The aim is to export about 5 million tons of grains per month to empty Ukraine’s silos in time for the new harvest, according to the U.N. official. The agreement is for a renewable 120-day period.
Podolyak insisted that no Russian ship would escort vessels and that no Russian representative would be present at Ukrainian ports. Ukraine also plans an immediate military response “in case of provocations,” he said.
Guterres first raised the critical need to get Ukraine’s agricultural production and Russia’s grain and fertilizer back into world markets in late April during meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
He proposed a package deal in early June amid fears that the war was endangering food supplies for many developing nations and could worsen hunger for up to 181 million people.
Before the deal, Russian and Ukrainian officials have blamed each other for the blocked grain shipments. Moscow accused Ukraine of failing to remove sea mines at the ports to allow safe shipping and insisted on its right to check incoming ships for weapons. Ukraine has argued that Russia’s port blockade and launching of missiles from the Black Sea made any shipments unviable.
Ukraine has sought international guarantees that the Kremlin wouldn’t use the safe corridors to attack the Black Sea port of Odessa. Ukrainian authorities have also accused Russia of stealing grain from eastern Ukraine and deliberately shelling Ukrainian fields to set them on fire.
In Washington, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. welcomes the agreement in principle.
“But what we’re focusing on now is holding Russia accountable for implementing this agreement and enabling Ukrainian grain to get to world markets. It has been for far too long that Russia has enacted this blockade,” Price said.
After last week’s talks in Istanbul, the U.S. sought to facilitate Russian food and fertilizer exports by reassuring banks, shipping and insurance companies that such transactions would not breach Washington’s sanctions on Moscow.