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What happens if the Black Sea blockade is lifted?

A deal allowing Ukraine to resume its grain exports is urgently needed. The harvest season starts in July, but storage facilities are still full of last winter’s grain. Meanwhile in Somalia, which used to import all its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of famine. Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved

United Nations and Turkey-led negotiations with Moscow and Kyiv to allow Ukrainian grain exports to resume in the Black Sea are moving forward. But even if a deal is signed, its impact to alleviate the food crisis could take months.

This content was published on July 20, 2022 - 13:35

“In a world darkened by global crises, today, at last, we have a ray of hope,” declared United Nations secretary general António Guterres on July 13. The hope – to “alleviate hunger around the world” – stemmed from a round of negotiations between Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and UN officials to unblock food exports through the Black Sea.

The UN had been working for weeks behind the scenes to find a way to safely export the 22 million tons of grain trapped in Ukrainian silos and ports – enough to cover the annual consumption of the world’s least developed economies, according to The EconomistExternal link. Guterres said that a “broad agreement” had been reached on many “substantive aspects” of the operation but stressed that “more technical work” was needed for a formal agreement.

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar was even more optimistic and said a deal could be signed this week. His comments were echoed on Monday by European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell who said that he too hoped an agreement would be found before Sunday.

The exact details of the deal remain unknown, but an agreement is likely to cover issues such as mines clearance, naval escorts, and cargoes inspections. The date when the four delegations will meet again is not yet known.

So far, Ankara has said it would ensure the safety of export routes while warring parties would jointly inspect shipments before they enter Ukrainian ports. A coordination centre with Russia, Ukraine, and the UN would be established in Turkey.

But experts caution that even if a deal was signed today, it would likely take weeks or months before countries hardest hit by the global food crisis feel the relief, while the deal itself could prove fragile.

Food crisis

Ukraine produces enough grain to feed hundreds of millions of people and is a major exporter of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Before the war, most food exports used to leave Ukraine on ships out of Black Sea ports. But Ukrainian mines and Russian warships have closed sea export routes.

“Failure to open those ports in the Odesa region will be a declaration of war on global food security. And it will result in famine, destabilisation, and mass migration around the world,” UN World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley warnedExternal link the UN Security Council in May.

The Black Sea blockade is adding to a global food crisis fuelled by Covid-19 disruptions and climate change. Low supplies of Ukrainian grain and high food prices have been bad news for African and Middle Eastern countries that rely heavily on food imports from Ukraine. The Horn of Africa, which faces its fourth consecutive failed rainy season, has been hit particularly hard. UN agencies have warned that in Somalia, which used to import all its wheat from Ukraine and Russia, hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of famine.

External Content

A deal allowing Ukraine to resume its grain exports is urgently needed. The harvest season starts in July, but storage facilities are still full of last winter’s grain. There are fears that this grain may now rot away. On top of that, if farmers cannot sell their cropsExternal link, they may not be able to afford to plant or harvest in the future. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s agriculture minister speaking to the Financial TimesExternal link, warned farmers will plant two-thirds less this year unless a deal is agreed. Such a reduction would threaten future global food output, as Ukrainian wheat accounts for 10%External link of all exports. Food security experts fear thatExternal link a failed harvest in Ukraine next year could turn the current food prices crisis into a food availability crisis in lower-income countries.

The heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank Group (WBG), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a joint statementExternal link last week calling for urgent action now but also longer-term reforms to tackle the global food crisis. Recommendations include boosting food production across the world and investing in climate-resilient agriculture.

A deal, then what?

But reaching a deal this week would not mean that grain exports would resume immediately. The shipping industry must reorganise itself and the Black Sea needs to be de-mined.

“The ships that sail the seas are not all at the entrance to the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles waiting for Ukraine to open,” says Florence Schurch, secretary general of the Swiss Trading and Shipping Association (STSA). “They continue to work, the trading companies continue to send their ships left and right. International trade continues.”

Schurch says that even if an agreement was found as soon as this week, it would still take months for the shipping industry to reorganise, and for the first vessels to enter the Black Sea.

“On top of that, ports and shipping lanes need to be cleared of mines, traders need to be assured that their captains and crew are safe, and insurers need to agree to insure all these ships and their cargoes at non-prohibitive prices,” says Schurch.

According to Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group in New York, the UN has anticipated such issues by reaching out to “an unusually wide range of contacts” that include shipping insurers. Gowan also points out that Guterres has an “amazingly detailed grasp of issues like de-mining”.

Still, clearing mines to open up a safe corridor for ships to sail through could take time – from weeks to months, depending on how many de-mining ships are mobilised and the number of mines in the water, a naval expert told The New York TimesExternal link.

The UN plan

“I think Turkey wants the UN involved in this process, as it offers both political legitimacy and technical expertise to the discussions,” says Gowan. “Having the UN creates some additional transparency as the UN can act as a sort of neutral ‘umpire’ over the terms of any agreement,” he adds.

The lack of trust between Kiev and Moscow has so far been a major impediment to reaching a diplomatic agreement. Ukraine does not want to remove the mines it placed in ports without guarantees that Russia will not attack them, while Russia has asked to inspect the cargoes of ships entering Ukrainian ports to ensure they do not carry weaponry.

Moscow also asked for sanctions on Russia to be lifted if a deal was found, which Western countries oppose. The UN and Turkey-led deal could include measures to support Russian fertiliser and grain exports. Russian grain is not under sanctions, but many traders and banks have stayed away from dealing with Russia out of fears they may be exposing themselves to fines.

Schurch confirms that grain traders have stopped working with Russia. According to her, the European Union sanctions, which Switzerland adopted, are too vague. She calls on Brussels and Bern to clarify their position so that traders can work without risk.

According to Gowan, if an agreement is reached, the deal could still be questioned in the future. He points to the UN cross-border mechanism that allows humanitarian convoys to enter rebel-held parts of Syria from Turkey. Earlier this month, Russia threatened to put an end to the mechanism by vetoing a 12-month extension of its mandate before eventually agreeing to a 6-month extension, which will make planning aid deliveries more difficult.

“I am sure that even if a Black Sea grain export mechanism is created, Russia will frequently question how it is managed and threaten to cut it off. The Russians know how to play games with humanitarian aid,” says Gowan.

If all fails

If the current negotiation process fails, Gowan suspects that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France will raise the issue at the UN Security Council, where the three countries sit as permanent members together with Russia and China.

He says the three countries could table a resolution demanding that Russia allows grain exports to resume out of Black Sea ports, which Moscow would most likely veto. Russia would then need – under a resolution adopted last spring that aims to increase accountability for permanent members using their right of veto – to explain its decision in front of the General Assembly in which, unlike the Security Council and its 15 members, every member state has a seat.

“Western diplomats will want to make the Russians explain to African and Arab countries why Moscow is cutting off their food,” says Gowan.

Data visualisation by Pauline Turuban.

Edited by Virginie Mangin and Imogen Foulkes.

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