December 7, 2022 3:48 am

Ships sail after Russia exits grain deal, but future in flux

LONDON — Ships loaded with grain departed Ukraine on Tuesday despite Russia suspending its participation in a U.N.-brokered deal that ensures safe wartime passage of critical food supplies meant for parts of the world struggling with hunger. But the United Nations said vessels would not move Wednesday, raising concerns about future shipments.

Three ships carrying 84,490 metric tons of corn, wheat and sunflower meal left Ukraine through a humanitarian sea corridor set up in July, while 36 other vessels cleared inspections near Turkey to head to their final destinations, the U.N. said. The corridor, brokered by Turkey and U.N., was seen as a breakthrough to ensure Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia would receive grain and other food from the Black Sea region during Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russia cited allegations of a Ukrainian drone attack against its Black Sea fleet in announcing over the weekend that it was suspending its part in the grain deal. The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that ship traffic from ports in southern Ukraine was halted, calling the movement “unacceptable.”

But a total of 14 ships sailed that day, including one chartered by the U.N. World Food Program to bring wheat to Ethiopia, which along with neighboring Somalia and Kenya, is badly affected by the worst drought in decades. The U.N. has warned that parts of Somalia are facing famine. Thousands of people have died there.

Despite grain-laden ships leaving Ukraine this week, the U.N. announced that such vessels would not travel Wednesday, raising fears about the future of the initiative. Amir Abdulla, the agreement’s U.N. coordinator, later tweeted that “we expect loaded ships to sail on Thursday.”

But it was unclear what would happen later this week. Ukraine, Turkey and the U.N. have carried out vessel inspections without Russia, allowing some shipments to continue, in what the international body called “a temporary and extraordinary measure.”

The U.N. operation had been prioritizing a large backlog of ships waiting for checks off Istanbul, said Munro Anderson, head of intelligence of the risk consultancy Dryad Global.

After suspending its participation, “it is likely that Russia will use this as a tool of negotiation to secure what it needs from the deal,” Anderson said. “We know that Russia has been looking to export fertilizer products and to seek a sanctions reprieve on those so it can do so effectively.”

While Western sanctions on Russia don’t affect its grain exports and a parallel wartime deal was meant to clear the way for the country’s food and fertilizer shipments, some shipping and insurance companies have been wary of running afoul of the penalties or want to avoid doing business with Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed to the fertilizer issue in a call Tuesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, saying Russia’s agricultural exports still were not unblocked. Putin also said resuming the grain deal would require an investigation into the attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet, according to a Kremlin readout of the call.

Erdogan told Putin “that if they solve the grain crisis through a constructive approach, they will (also) encourage steps toward a return to negotiations” to end the war in Ukraine, according to the Turkish president’s office.

The July 22 deal to spur exports of grain and fertilizer was a response to skyrocketing food prices as a result of slashed supplies from two major producers following Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. The U.N. said that as of Tuesday, more than 9.7 million metric tons of grain and other food has been shipped from three Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.

Analysts say Russia still is bound by the terms of the grain deal it signed, which include a commitment not to target civilian vessels taking part in the initiative. Such an attack also would violate international law.

“Although it is not currently participating in that deal, it is still a signatory to it. Russia’s interests are not going to be served in any way, shape or form by attacking vessels and groups in the international community,” Anderson said.

He added that Russia’s primary concern is likely that vessels might be going unchecked and could be used to bring in weapons. That is why the grain deal established a Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul to coordinate checks between the warring nations, Turkey and the U.N.

Russia has announced plans to conduct its own inspections of ships that have already cleared the joint checks in Istanbul, but further details were not known.

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