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WORLD FOOD CRISIS

Putin approval needed for UN deal to release 20 million tons of blockaded Ukrainian grain

Putin approval needed for UN deal to release 20 million tons of blockaded Ukrainian grain
From left: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.(Photo: EPA-EFE / Stephanie Lecocq) | A photograph organised by the Russian military shows workers drying wheat on an farm in Starobilsk district, Luhansk region, Ukraine. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergei Ilnitsky / EPA) | Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mikhail Metzel / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool) | A photograph organised by the Russian military shows a Russian serviceman standing guard near a wheat field outside Melitopol, Zaporizhia region, southeastern Ukraine. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergei Ilnitsky)

The agreement hinges on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval, which the UN hopes will happen on Tuesday. This could have a major impact on the global food crisis which the shortage of grain and fertilisers from Ukraine has largely provoked.

Russian and Ukrainian officials have provisionally agreed on the details of a deal to lift Moscow’s blockade on Ukraine ports, which is preventing the export of 20 to 25 million tons of grain, according to UN Security Council sources. 

The deal, which has been given the nod by Russian military officials, would require Ukrainian pilots to navigate dangerous corridors through sea mines protecting those ports. The deal now requires the vital approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the sources said. 

They hope he will give the thumbs up as soon as Tuesday when he is expected to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran to discuss their differences over the war in Syria. 

The Security Council sources said they believed Erdoğan would seek Putin’s approval of the deal to lift Russia’s blockade on Ukraine’s exports of grain and fertilisers. Turkish and UN officials brokered the agreement during weeks of intense negotiations with Ukrainians and Russians.

Global food crisis

If Erdoğan succeeds, this could have a major impact on the global food crisis which the shortage of grain and fertilisers from Ukraine has largely provoked. Africa has been hit particularly hard with food prices spiking by about 60% in Ethiopia and around 36% in Somalia. 

In sub-Saharan Africa, the Ukraine war has aggravated the effects of five years of drought, other climate change impacts and conflict, driving more than 140 million people into food insecurity. 

In May, David Beasley, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme warned that the world had only 60 days to open Ukraine’s ports and get its grain to world markets. Ukraine normally produces enough grain to feed about 400 million people, more than enough to overcome the shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the UN Security Council sources said. 

Beasley’s warning and others spurred “very delicate and very committed behind the scenes diplomacy to try and bring the grain that Ukraine has to market,” the Security Council sources said. 

‘Ray of hope

Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced a “ray of hope” in the negotiations. The Security Council sources said the ray of hope “doesn’t say we’re all the way there, but it would allow us, if this works, to get the 20 million or so tons out of Odesa and on to the market. And we know Odesa is exporting only around half of the grain that it was exporting last year. So this would have a huge impact on the availability of grain and grain prices which have skyrocketed while Ukraine’s grain has been stuck. “

The sources said the provisional deal struck by UN diplomats and Turkish officials with Russia and Ukraine had four elements:

  1. Create safe corridors for ships carrying grain and fertiliser from the Ukrainian ports across the Black Sea. Earlier, the negotiators proposed that Ukraine lift the sea mines that are protecting its ports from Russian attack to allow safe passage for the grain. But the Ukrainians feared that Russia would take advantage of that to bombard and seize the ports. So the agreement now is that the mines will remain and Ukrainian pilots — who know where the fixed and floating mines are — will navigate the grain and fertiliser convoys down safe corridors between the mines.
  2. The second part of the deal is that because the Black Sea will remain dangerous as the Russians have declared it a war zone, the UN will run a command and control centre in Istanbul — at the entrance to the Black Sea — where Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials will coordinate the safe passage and movement of the ships carrying the grain.
  3. The third part of this deal is that all four parties to the deal — the UN, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine — will jointly inspect the empty cargo ships before they arrive in Ukraine’s ports to load the grain to ensure that they are not carrying weapons for Ukraine. This has been one of Russia’s main concerns. The Security Council sources said Russia had wanted to do the inspections alone. “But now it will probably be done by all four parties, so the UN, Turkey, Russia and Ukraine will have joint inspection teams.”
  4. The fourth part of the deal is that the lifting of the blockade will only apply to the export of food and fertiliser as Russia had insisted Ukraine should not benefit too much by exporting other products. “None of that requires sanctions to be lifted or adjusted in any way because sanctions don’t apply to humanitarian food exports,” the UN Security Council sources said. They pointed out that Russia had continued to export grain from the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk and had announced it would increase these exports.

“So that underlines the point that this is not about (Western) sanctions on grain. This is a situation which has arisen because the Russian blockade of southern Ukrainian ports including Odesa has stopped them exporting the grain from those ports.”

The sources also pointed out that the spike in global fertiliser prices could also not be blamed on the sanctions as Russia, and China, had both imposed bans on the export of their fertilisers.

They also said that the only real sticking point to closing the deal was the uncertainty over Putin’s approval. Technically, the deal had been agreed to by Russian defence officials.

“But of course it needs from Russia the political sign-off from President Putin. And we had hoped after the negotiations last week, that when President Erdoğan telephoned President Putin last Monday that Putin would agree to give his political sign-off to the deal that had been negotiated.” 

‘Putin’s blessing’

But that didn’t happen on the phone call. “However, Erdogan and Putin will meet tomorrow in Tehran at a regional conference and there is some hope that Putin will agree at that point to the deal which is now sorted out in all but name. That is the current sticking point, the political blessing … from Putin.” 

The Security Council sources said one might have thought Putin “has nothing to gain by being effectively blamed not only for invading Ukraine, but also thereby triggering a global food security crisis. Ukraine feeds 400 million with its grain exports. So Putin could become not only the destroyer of Ukraine, but also an absolute force of destruction of human life and global famine as well as [the cause of] a financial and energy crisis.

“So I think any humane leader would not want that tag, but it’s very difficult to get inside the mind of President Putin. So I think what he’s trying to work out is what maximises his chances of winning the war on his terms. Which means really obliterating not only the east of Ukraine, the Donbas area, but also as much of Ukraine as he can. “

So Putin would probably be weighing up the international advantage he would gain by agreeing to this humanitarian deal against his concerns about not gaining enough benefit from Russia’s own exports of grain, the sources said. 

They added that if the deal succeeded, it would probably improve trust between Russia and Ukraine. But they suspected this would not be enough to lead to an overall peace deal to end the war. DM

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