Russia and Ukraine sign agreement with Turkey to export grain

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ISTANBUL — Russia and Ukraine agreed on Friday to restart stalled grain shipments, in a step towards easing a global crisis that has exposed tens of millions of people, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. , to the threat of acute hunger, said the UN Secretary General. announcement.

One of two agreements signed in Istanbul, brokered by the United Nations and aided by Turkey, guarantees the safe passage of commercial vessels from the Ukrainian port of Odessa and two other ports, which are currently cut off by a naval blockade Russian. A side deal is supposed to facilitate Russian grain and fertilizer exports.

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The grain deal is in effect for a period of 120 days and is renewable, according to the text of the agreement posted on the Facebook page of Andrii Sybiha, the deputy chief of staff of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the two countries were among the world’s leading producers and exporters of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. Last year, Ukraine accounted for 10% of global wheat exports, according to the United Nations. More than 20 million tonnes of grain have been blocked in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, sparking global shortages and fears of worsening hardship ahead.

In a sign of the sensitivities weighing on the deal, representatives of Russia and Ukraine did not sit together at the Istanbul ceremony, chaired by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

“We haven’t reached this point in an instant,” said Erdogan, whose government has close ties to Ukraine and Russia. He described the negotiations to reach an agreement as “intense and arduous”.

For all the complexity of the negotiations, the grain deal seemed to hinge on a lack of goodwill, relying largely on Russian assurances that it would not attack merchant ships or port facilities involved in the initiative. Even so, officials expressed optimism.

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“Today there is a lighthouse on the Black Sea,” António Guterres said during a signing ceremony. “A glimmer of hope, a glimmer of possibility, a glimmer of relief, in a world that needs it more than ever.”

“It will bring relief to developing countries on the brink of bankruptcy and to the most vulnerable people on the brink of starvation,” he added.

Sybiha called the initiative “an important step to avert the global food crisis”, in a message posted on Twitter.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Russian signatory, said Moscow would not exploit the deal for military purposes. “Russia has assumed the obligations that are very clearly set out in this document. We won’t benefit from it,” he said in a speech on state-run Rossiya 24 television. He expected grain transportation to start “in the next few days.”

The agreements are the fruit of conversations Guterres had with Ukrainian and Russian leaders in April to resolve the spiraling food crisis. Turkey – which has attempted to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow throughout the conflict and controls passage through the Bosphorus, the entrance to the Black Sea – has played an active mediating role.

For months talks stalled – Ukrainian diplomats complained that their security concerns were not being acknowledged, with Russia downplaying the scale of the global food crisis. Ship insurers needed to be assured that ships would not be attacked, struck by mines or faced other dangers in an active war zone.

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The document describes a complex regime that establishes safe channels through the Black Sea and inspections in Turkey to ensure that weapons are not sent to Ukraine. Despite early speculation, there will be no large-scale demining of Ukrainian ports. Ukrainian pilots will guide commercial vessels from ports. Minesweepers will be used as needed, officials said.

There would be no military escort of the ships, whose passage will be controlled from a coordination center in Istanbul made up of representatives of the parties to the agreements. In addition to Odessa, the agreement covers shipments from the ports of Chernomorsk and Yuzhny, António Guterres said.

A side deal is supposed to facilitate the export of grain and fertilizers from Russia, although its purpose was unclear: these products are not subject to sanctions by the United States or the European Union. A UN official said they hoped this would help reduce soaring fertilizer costs that could impact next crop yields.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Ukrainian president, said in a Twitter post on Friday afternoon that Ukraine was not signing a direct agreement with Russia, but rather with Turkey and the United Nations. Russia would sign a “mirror” agreement, he said.

And there would be “no presence” of Russian representatives in Ukrainian ports, he said. “In the event of provocations”, he added, there would be “an immediate military response”.

Throughout the process, negotiations were hampered by a lack of trust between the two sides, “opacity” at times over what was being discussed in Moscow and Kyiv and other bureaucratic hurdles, said Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief. coordinator. Talks continued until 6 p.m. Thursday, as the sides squabbled over legal language.

“I’ve done a lot of mediation in my career,” he said. “It was probably about as intense as any.”

A sticking point was the presence of mines in Ukrainian ports. For a time, Western nations as well as Russia insisted on clearing ports, which Kyiv opposed and UN negotiators feared would take too long. Russia dropped the request about six weeks ago, Griffiths said. About a month ago, he added, there was a “light bulb” moment when insurers and shipping lines were convinced the plan was viable.

The deal did not address Ukraine’s complaints that Russia was selling grain stolen from occupied territories abroad, or change the position of the Russian naval blockade off Ukraine’s coast. “It doesn’t stop the war, unfortunately,” Griffiths said.

The announcement comes as countries around the world, and particularly in East Africa, struggle to feed themselves. A group of seven East African countries, including Somalia and South Sudan, said on Friday that 50 million people in their countries face acute food insecurity this year while some 300,000 are on the brink. of starvation.

Mercy Corps, the aid organization, said in a statement that while the deal could help ease grain shortages, “it will not end or significantly alter the trajectory of the worsening food crisis. world”.

“Unblocking Ukrainian ports will not reverse the damage the war has done to crops, farmland and agricultural transit routes in the country,” the group said. “We must recognize that our global food systems were already failing and record numbers of people were heading into poverty and hunger due to the economic crisis of the COVID-19 crisis and the impacts of climate change.”

Zeynep Karatas in Istanbul and Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia contributed to this report.

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