Russia pushes UN, western countries to meet demands as Ukraine grain deal nears expiry

The grain terminal at the port in Odesa, where Ukraine ships wheat according to the grain deal they currently have with Russia, 10 April 2023. (Keystone/Scanpix_DK/Bo Amstrup)

The Black Sea grain deal is expected to run out unless the Kremlin’s conditions are met, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva said three weeks ahead of its expiry date.

Russia’s envoy in Geneva said Wednesday that a renewal of a UN-brokered deal to ensure Ukraine can continue to export food was at risk so long as sanctions continued to hinder Moscow’s own agri-food and fertiliser exports.

Ambassador Gennady Gatilov said that the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was agreed last July between Russia and Ukraine with the support of Turkey, UN secretary general António Guterres and Unctad in Geneva to help relieve the threat of famine due to rising food prices, is set to run out unless a last-minute agreement is found.

“This is not the best time for political negotiations,” Gennady Gatilov told Geneva Solutions during the press briefing. While he said negotiations were continuing, he stressed that Russia saw the deal as mostly in Kyiv's favour.

“The Ukraine part of the deal is working well but the Russian part is not working,” he said.

His comments come days after Guterres called on Russia to “improve, extend and expand” the grain deal, following a meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in New York.

Gatilov said the UN is experiencing a deep crisis in multilateralism, in large fault due to the United States. He said Washington was attempting to maintain global dominance of the institution in a “rules-based world where they set the rules.”

“The Western countries undermine multilateralism by subjugating the secretariats of the UN and international order,” he said.

Read more: One year of war: how international Geneva stepped up for Ukraine

No real progress has been achieved in talks ahead of the 18 May expiration date of the grain deal The ambassador reiterated demands by Moscow including the reconnection of the Russian Agricultural Bank, Rosselkhozbank, to the SWIFT payment system, allowing the export of agricultural machinery spare parts to Russia, lifting restrictions on insurance and allowing of Russian ships to foreign ports.

The export of Russian ammonia, a chemical ingredient used for fertilisers, Gatilov said, is “still on the table” of negotiations relating to the grain deal.

Global repercussions and geopolitics

There is growing concern that, should no resolution be found to extend the grain deal, poor countries will suffer most, as food prices would rise once again– but Gatilov brushed aside those concerns. “I think the issue of food prices is a little exaggerated”, he told Geneva Solutions, adding that Russia was delivering “to every possible extent” agricultural products to various countries.

He said the food cargoes were barely reaching the poorest countries, though UN data states the contrary, with 55.8 per cent of the food being received by developing countries. China, which appears in the initiative’s data as the leading buyer, is also a major commodity food trader.

Paul Dziatkowiec, head of diplomatic dialogue at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), told Geneva Solutions that hopefully the two warring adversaries and intermediaries will be able to strike a deal before it runs out.

Before Russia launched its full-blown invasion, Dziatkowiec was involved in mediating the conflict in Ukraine’s disputed Donbass region with the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Read more: Black Sea grain talks in Geneva: what’s at stake?

He said Russia may feel some pressure from certain developing countries where it has been trying to boost relations and which would benefit from the continuation of the grain deal from both an economic and humanitarian perspective.

“If it fails, the diplomatic consequences for Russia depend on who is perceived as responsible for the collapse of the initiative,” Dziatkowiec said. “Russia has much to gain from a good outcome. But there is always the possibility that the non-success of such a thing can be spun in any which way that certain governments want.”

In February, Lavrov toured Africa in an effort to persuade countries that Moscow could be a good international partner. Putin is also due to attend a meeting in August in South Africa of Brics countries – that include Brazil, India and China –, though a International Criminal Court warrant against him means he risks detention for war crimes.

While Guterres has played a central role in keeping the Black Sea grain deal on track, by mediating directly between the two belligerents, Dziatkowiec said the organisation has nonetheless been “hamstrung by the need for consensus, unable to make any impact on stopping the ware, with Russia a veto holder in the Security Council.”

“The grain initiative has been a shining light in otherwise a terrible year in Ukraine,” Dziatkowiec said. “It has otherwise been very difficult to make any headway on the military side of the equation.”

He also warned of the growing risks of military escalation as winter comes to an end, with both sides having had the chance to regroup.

“It is inevitable that there will be an escalation, possibly in the next few weeks,” he said. “All the signs are there.”

Backing this assertion was the sense that through his decision to annex territories, Putin will now not be allowed by Russian law to give any of it up. “He has backed himself into a corner. From a negotiation perspective, it would have left more options on the table for him to threaten to annex than to annex” the southeastern regions of Ukraine.

That decision, he added, also significantly reduced Ukraine’s room for maneuver. “(Ukrainian president Volodymyr) Zelensky is a democratically elected leader. Politically, it is inconceivable for him to compromise on bits of Ukrainian territory, especially after so much blood has been spilt, so many people have died and cities flattened. You simply can’t imagine that kind of deal.”