BRUSSELS — After three months of intensive talks, Ukraine and Russia have reached a deal, together with the United Nations and Turkey, that will allow both countries to get their grain and other foodstuffs as well as fertilizer out in the world.
Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s biggest grain and fertilizer exporters, in particular to markets in Africa and the Middle East. When Russia invaded Ukraine, that trade was practically suspended, primarily because of Russian naval dominance on the Black Sea that effectively blockaded Ukraine’s ports.
The results were devastating: historically high grain prices feeding into inflation, and shortages of food in parts of the world that most desperately need them, including Somalia and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa.
There were many moving parts to this deal, and officials didn’t think it was possible until just last week, not least because the war is continuing and trust between the parties is extremely low.
Here’s what to know about what the problem has been, how it might be addressed after this breakthrough, and what the risks are.
Why was Ukrainian grain stuck inside the country?
After Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, it deployed warships along the Black Sea coast of Ukraine. Ukraine mined those waters to deter a Russian naval attack. That meant that the ports used to export Ukrainian grain were blocked for commercial shipping. Russia also pilfered grain stocks, mined grain fields so that they could not be harvested, and even destroyed grain storage facilities.
How will the operation work?
Ukrainian captains will steer vessels packed with grain out of the ports of Odesa, Yuzhne and Chornomorsk.
Using safe passages that are not mined, they will pilot the ships to Turkish ports, where they will be unloaded, and the grain will then be shipped onward to buyers around the world.
The returning vessels will be inspected by a joint team of Turkish, UN, Ukrainian and Russian officials to ensure that they are empty, and not carrying weapons back to Ukraine — a key Russian demand.
A joint command center with officials from all four parties will be set up immediately in Istanbul to monitor every movement of the flotillas.
The parties have agreed that the vessels themselves and the port facilities used for their operations will be safeguarded from hostilities.
The operation will begin in the coming weeks and is expected to quickly begin shipping 5 million tons of grains out per month. At that rate, and considering that 2.5 million tons of grains are already being transported out by land and river to Ukraine’s friendly neighbors, the stockpiles of nearly 20 million tons should be cleared within three to four months. This will free space in storage facilities for the new harvest, which is already underway in Ukraine.
What are the risks?
No broad cease fire has been negotiated, and peace talks are moribund, so the ships will be traveling through a war zone. Attacks near the ships or at the ports where operations are taking place could unravel the agreement. Another risk would be a breach of trust or disagreement between the different inspectors and joint-command officials.
The role of the UN and Turkey is to mediate such disagreements on the spot and to monitor and enforce the agreement. The agreement is valid for 120 days, and the UN hopes that it will be renewed, to smoothen the severely disrupted global food supply.
Will this immediately solve world hunger and bring down global food prices?
No. Global hunger is a constant problem caused by poor distribution of food and price manipulation, hitting some parts of the world year after year. It is often compounded by conflict and has been affected by climate change. Still, the war in Ukraine, which produces a large share of the world’s wheat, put an enormous burden on grain distribution networks, driving up prices and fanning hunger.
Officials say this agreement has the potential to increase the flow of wheat to Somalia within weeks, averting a full-blown famine, and should lead to a gradual decline in global grain prices. But considering how fragile the agreement is because of the ongoing war, grain markets are unlikely to return to normal immediately.
What’s in it for Russia?
Russia is a major exporter of grains and fertilizer in its own right and the agreement should make it easier for them to sell those goods on the world market.
The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that its own stocks cannot be exported because of economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.
The measures do not in fact affect those goods. In practice, however, private shipping companies, insurers, banks and other businesses have been extremely reluctant to help Russia export its grains and fertilizers, either because they fear they might run afoul of sanctions or because they worry that doing business with Russia might harm their reputations.
To assure these companies that they will not be punished if they help the Russian exports, the European Union on Thursday issued a legal clarification to its sanctions saying that various banks and other companies involved in the grain trade were not in fact banned.
The UN said that, armed with similar assurances by the United States, it held talks with the private sector, and that trade from Russia — especially the Russian port of Novorossiysk — should pick up pace.