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Russia and Ukraine agree to release blockaded grain exports

Russia and Ukraine signed a grain deal brokered by Turkey on July 22 to allow exports of grain from blockaded Ukrainian ports. (Video: Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Russia and Ukraine agreed Friday to restart shipments of blockaded grain, in a step toward easing a global crisis that has exposed tens of millions of people, especially in Africa and the Middle East, to the threat of acute hunger, the U.N. secretary general announced.

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

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The grain agreement is in force 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 head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office.

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, the two countries were among the world’s top producers and exporters of grain, cooking oil and fertilizers. Last year, Ukraine accounted for 10 percent of global wheat exports, according to the United Nations. More than 20 million tons of grain have been stuck in Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, causing worldwide shortages and fears of worsening hardship to come.

In a sign of the sensitivities weighing on the deal, representatives from Russia and Ukraine did not sit together at the Istanbul ceremony, which was presided over by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“We did not reach this point in an instant,” said Erdogan, whose government maintains close ties with both Ukraine and Russia. He called the negotiations to reach an agreement “intense and arduous.”

For all the complexity involved in the negotiations, the grain agreement appeared to depend on goodwill that is in short supply, resting in large part on Russian assurances 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 beacon on the Black Sea,” Guterres said at a signing ceremony. “A beacon of hope, a beacon of possibility, a beacon of relief, in a world that needs it more than ever.”

“It will bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine,” he added.

Sybiha called the initiative “an important step to avoid 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 gain. “Russia has assumed the obligations which are quite clearly spelled out in this document. We will not take advantage,” he said in a speech on the state-owned Rossiya 24 television channel. He expected grain transport to begin “in the coming days.”

The agreements were the fruit of conversations Guterres had with the leaders of Ukraine and Russia in April to solve the spiraling food crisis. Turkey — which has tried to mediate between Kyiv and Moscow throughout the conflict, and controls passage through the Bosporus, the entrance to the Black Sea — took an active mediating role.

For months the discussions stumbled — Ukrainian diplomats complained that their security concerns were not being acknowledged, as Russia played down the scope of the global food crisis. Ship insurance underwriters had to be assured that vessels would not be attacked, struck by mines or face other hazards in an active war zone.

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The document spells out 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 is to be no large-scale demining of Ukraine’s ports. Ukrainian pilots will guide commercial vessels from the ports. Minesweepers will be used as needed, officials said.

There would be no military escorts of the ships, whose passage will be monitored from a coordination center in Istanbul staffed by representatives of the parties to the agreements. In addition to Odessa, the agreement covers shipments from the ports of Chernomorsk and Yuzhny, Guterres said.

A parallel agreement is supposed to facilitate the export of grain and fertilizers from Russia, though its utility was unclear: Those commodities are not subject to U.S. or European Union sanctions. A U.N. official said they hoped it would help bring down soaring costs of fertilizers that could impact yields for the next harvest.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s president, said in a Twitter message posted 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 case 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 parties, “opacity” at times about what was being discussed in Moscow and Kyiv and other bureaucratic hurdles, said Martin Griffiths, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. The talks continued until 6 p.m. Thursday, as parties wrangled over legal language.

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

One sticking point was the presence of mines in Ukraine’s ports. For a time, Western nations as well as Russia were insisting on demining the ports, which Kyiv objected to and which U.N. negotiators worried would take too much time. Russia dropped the demand about six weeks ago, Griffiths said. A month or so ago, he added, there was a “lightbulb” moment where insurance underwriters and shipping companies became convinced the plan was viable.

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

The announcement comes as countries around the world and particularly in East Africa have been struggling to feed themselves. A group of seven East African nations, including Somalia and South Sudan said Friday that 50 million people in their countries are facing acute food insecurity this year while some 300,000 teeter on the edge of famine.

Mercy Corps, the relief organization, said in a statement that while the agreement could help ease grain shortages, “this will not end or significantly alter the trajectory of the worsening global food crisis.”

“Unblocking Ukraine’s ports will not reverse the damage war has wreaked on crops, agricultural land 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 edging toward poverty and hunger due to the economic pummeling 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.