Ukraine and Russia sign deal to create Black Sea corridor for grain exports

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres attend a signing ceremony of the grain shipment agreement between Turkey, the UN, Russia and Ukraine, in Istanbul, Turkey, 22 July 2022. (Credit: EPA/SEDAT SUNA)

Russia and Ukraine agreed on Friday to allow for shipment of grains and fertilisers through the Black Sea, after two and a half months of negotiations.

The agreement, brokered by the UN and Turkey, ensures safe passage for vessels to transport some 20 million tons of grain stockpiles blocked in Ukraine since the beginning of the war, easing some of the pressure on markets that is fuelling a global food crisis.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and UN secretary general Antonio joined Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu, Ukrainian infrastructure minister Oleksandr Kubrakov and Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akas in Istanbul to sign the deal on Friday.

It was hailed as a major step in addressing one of the biggest impacts of the war as hostilities continue in the south and eastern part of Ukraine.

“This is an agreement for the world,” said Guterres at the signing ceremony. “It will bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy, and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine, and to help stabilise global food prices, which were already at record levels, even before the war,”

Why it matters. Ukraine and Russia are among the world’s top exporters of key cereals such as wheat and sunflower, as well as fertilisers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and its blockade of the the country’s Black Sea ports in the south brought exports to a halt, sending global market prices through the roof.

Countries across Africa and the Middle East that were heavily or completely dependent on Ukraine and Russia for wheat imports have been pushed further into hardship. Farmers across the globe have had to renounce using fertilisers at double the normal price, potentially leading to lower yields for the next harvest.

The deal is meant to provide “some kind of solace for the global south”, a UN senior official involved with the talks told reporters on Friday. Over 800 million people worldwide are going hungry, according to the World Food Programme, including over 50 million who are on the brink of famine because of the war.

What the deal says. The agreement’s aim is to exclusively allow for commercial operations to resume. Ukraine has to first identify safe channels for ships to go across and into and out of three key Ukrainian ports, including Odesa. The vessels will be guided through the corridor by Ukrainian pilots. They will be monitored during the crossing and inspected to ensure that no weapons are being carried.

The parties have agreed not to demine the whole sea territory, deeming it time consuming and unnecessary for the purpose of the deal, according to the official.

The agreement also sets up a Joint Controlled Centre (JCC) in Istanbul, tasked with monitoring the operation. It will be composed of officials and staff from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the UN.

The UN official said that it will take a few weeks to properly implement the agreement but that some early movements could be expected to show that it would work. He added that the aim was to resume normal levels of grain export at around five million tonnes per month.

What role for the UN? The deal was first pushed by UN chief Guterres when he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in April. The UN will additionally sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Russia, through which “the Secretary General commits our efforts to facilitate exports [of fertilisers] from the Russian Federation… and raw materials to produce fertilisers in the world,” another UN official said.

She added that following the talks the UN would also continue to work with the private sector to clarify the rules of the game. Apart from the physical blockade, sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States on Russia have also had unintended consequences on the food market.

While there are exemptions on food and fertiliser exports from Russia, uncertainty and fear of misunderstanding a rule can have a chilling effect on companies, she said, welcoming the publishing of the details of the sanctions regime in the EU’s official journal on Thursday.

Representatives of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and of shipping networks had been involved in the negotiations to iron out issues such as non-punitive insurance premiums, according to the officials.

Will the deal hold? A key element of the agreement is that parties have promised not to attack the vessels, raising the issue of whether they will be able to trust each other.

The UN official said that the agreement was “effectively a de facto ceasefire” along the agreed corridor and that if there was an incident, it would be up to the JCC to resolve it. He argued that previous negotiations to evacuate the besieged Azovstal steel works back in April had been successful because the promises made had been kept.

He stressed that while the deal struck was “unprecedented”, it did not mean the end of the war.

In his remarks Guterres thanked Russia and Ukraine for putting “aside differences to pave the way for an initiative that will serve the common interests of all”.

“The beacon of hope of the Black Sea is shining bright today, thanks to the collective efforts of so many,” said Guterres, urging them to spare no efforts to achieve peace.