Russia and Ukraine have signed a landmark deal to reopen Ukrainian Black Sea ports for grain exports, raising hopes that an international food crisis aggravated by the Russian invasion can be eased.
The accord crowned two months of talks brokered by the United Nations and Turkey aimed at what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called a “package” that would both restore Ukrainian grain exports while easing Russian grain and fertiliser shipments despite tough foreign sanctions.
Mr Guterres said the deal, signed in Istanbul, opens the way to significant volumes of commercial food exports from three key Ukrainian ports — Odesaa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny.
“Today, there is a beacon on the Black Sea. A beacon of hope…, possibility…and relief in a world that needs it more than ever,” Mr Guterres told the gathering.
But fighting raged on unabated in Ukraine’s east and, underlining deep-seated enmity and mistrust driving the conflict, Russian and Ukrainian representatives declined to sit at the same table and avoided shaking hands at the ceremony.
The display of the two countries’ flags was adjusted so that they were no longer next to one other.
Russia and Ukraine, both among the world’s top exporters of food, sent their defence and infrastructure ministers respectively to Istanbul for the signing ceremony, also attended by Guterres and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Mr Erdogan said the deal would help prevent famine and ease global food inflation, and called on Russia and Ukraine to end their conflict.
Turkey, a NATO member that has good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, controls the straits leading into the Black Sea.
A blockade of Ukrainian ports by Russia’s Black Sea fleet, trapping tens of millions of tonnes of grain in silos and stranding many ships, has worsened global supply chain bottlenecks and, along with sweeping sanctions against Russia, stoked galloping inflation in food and energy prices around the world.
Russia has denied responsibility for the worsening food crisis, blaming instead foreign sanctions for slowing its own food and fertiliser exports and Ukraine for mining the approaches to its Black Sea ports.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the international community would be watching closely to ensure the deal did not put Ukraine at risk of being further invaded by Russia.
“The G7 is working closely with partners like Turkey and others to ensure that we can get that grain out of Ukraine and to places around the world where it’s needed without putting at risk Ukraine’s sovereignty and protection,” Mr Trudeau said.
Speaking in Istanbul, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia would not seek to take advantage of the de-mining of Ukraine’s ports.
“Russia has taken on the obligations that are clearly spelled out in this document. We will not take advantage of the fact that the ports will be cleared and opened,” Shoigu said on the Rossiya-24 state TV channel.
Senior UN officials, briefing reporters on Friday, said the deal was expected to be fully operational in a few weeks and would restore grain shipments from the three reopened ports to pre-war levels of five million tonnes a month.
Safe passage into and out of the ports would be guaranteed in what one official called a “de facto ceasefire” for the ships and facilities covered, they said, although the word “ceasefire” was not in the agreement text.
Though Ukraine has mined nearby offshore areas as part of its defences against Russia’s five-month-old invasion, Ukrainian pilots would guide ships along safe channels in its territorial waters, they said.
Monitored by a Joint Coordination Centre based in Istanbul, the ships would then transit the Black Sea to Turkey’s Bosphorus strait and proceed to world markets, UN officials said.
The deal will be valid for 120 days but renewable and would not be expected to be stopped any time soon.
A UN official said a separate pact signed on Friday would smooth Russian food and fertiliser exports and that the UN welcomed United States and European Union clarifications that their sanctions would not apply to such shipments.
The overall objective is to help avert famine among tens of millions of people in poorer countries by injecting more wheat, sunflower oil, fertiliser and other products into world markets including for humanitarian needs, partly at lower prices.
The US welcomed the deal and said it was focusing on holding Russia accountable for implementing it.