Two days after drone attacks devastated some of Russia’s warships in Sevastopol in occupied Crimea at the crack of dawn, Russia requested a meeting in the United Nations Security Council on Monday to accuse Ukraine of staging the air and sea assaults from ships using the Black Sea humanitarian corridor, meant to carry grains from Ukraine ports to global markets. Immediately after the attacks, Russia suspended its participation in the Black Sea grain deal, apparently in retaliation.
The agreement was signed on July 22 by Russia, the UN, Türkiye and Ukraine to export grains and other vital foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports in a war zone to help alleviate world hunger by lowering food prices. Yet shipments of grain from the area continued on Oct. 31, despite Russia’s backing out of the deal temporarily. The ships had been approved for movement before Russia’s decision.
As Martin Griffiths, the UN relief chief, told reporters: Russia has suspended its participation in the deal but hasn’t withdrawn. He remained hopeful, he added, that the deal would be automatically renewed on Nov. 18. “We will not let this get in our way.”
Nevertheless, Russia’s defense minister reportedly said on Monday: “The movement of ships along the security corridor is unacceptable, since the Ukrainian leadership and the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine use it to conduct military operations against the Russian Federation.”
As of Oct. 31, the UN-led Joint Coordination Center, based in Istanbul and tasked with monitoring the Black Sea deal, said that 12 ships loaded with grain left Odesa to head into international waters after the required inspections by the remaining parties to the grain initiative. (Four ships are to be inspected inbound.) The coordination center held a meeting on Sunday in Istanbul with the delegations to the deal, including Russia, to try to keep ships moving in and out of the Ukraine ports regardless of recent changes. (There was no movement of vessels on Oct. 30.)
The UN made a big show of telling the Council on Monday that so far the deal has resulted in 38 countries buying 9.73 million metric tons of grain — mostly corn — to reach commercial markets. Not all of the goods have reached the hungriest countries, a fact that the UN and others concede, but about a third of the exports have reached low- or lower-middle-income countries, Griffiths said, adding that just under half of the wheat exports have gone to those places. (Last week, the General Assembly approved a $2.6 million budget to pay for the Joint Coordination Center’s work.)
On Monday, the outbound ships were scheduled to reach Türkiye, Spain, China and Libya, according to the coordination center, or JCC. Global food prices have dropped in the last six months by about 16 percent, per the Food and Agriculture Organization Food Prince Index, but market jitters on the grain deal’s stability could upset its leverage in overall food costs, the UN experts say, since the Oct. 29 attack on Sevastopol. Wheat prices jumped about six percent on the Chicago Board of Trade on Monday morning, Griffiths said. That information was reiterated in the Council by Rebeca Grynspan, the top UN trade official. She and Griffiths are negotiating to extend and expand the grain deal with Moscow.
“New security allegations are a cause of concern to the Secretary-General and many member states worried that the deal is in trouble,” Griffiths said, referring to António Guterres. (He delayed his departure for the League of Arab States summit in Algiers by a day to concentrate on the developments regarding the Black Sea deal, his office said.)
As to Russia’s contentions that the Black Sea corridor was used to stage drone attacks on Russia’s war fleet in Sevastopol, Griffiths said of such an “Initiative”: “Firstly, to be clear, no military vessels, aircraft or assets are, or have been, involved in support of the initiative by any party. They are not required, and they are not welcome. In fact, they are prohibited from going closer than ten nautical miles to the cargo ships, according to the procedures agreed by all parties.”
Russia retaliated by bombarding Kyiv on Monday, hitting key infrastructure sites in the capital and elsewhere. President Vladimir Putin acknowledged the attacks were partly in response to the boat- and aerial-drone attack on Sevastopol, saying, “and this is not all we can do,” according to the Russian Tass news agency’s Telegram channel. (Ukraine has not taken credit for the Sevastopol assault.)
Grynspan has been working for months to enable Russian grains and fertilizers to be more easily sold to international markets, an integral part of the grain deal, signed between the UN and Russia. Russia says that the plan hasn’t borne fruit for its own country, whereas Ukraine has been reaping revenue from the initiative. Grynspan has been striving to assure insurance companies and other relevant businesses that are wary of buying Russian grains and fertilizer (including ammonia) that the United States and European sanctions don’t apply to these goods.
It has been an uphill battle for Grynspan, who has traveled across the globe to try to address Russia’s complaints. Even Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s UN envoy, informally acknowledged her efforts. Now she is reportedly working on a third deal focusing entirely on Russian grains getting to outside markets, but the European Union and Britain are not fully onboard with the plan, a source familiar with the arrangement told PassBlue.
Grynspan hasn’t publicly confirmed this step, but Nebenzia told PassBlue that no grain exports have been sold to global markets under the current arrangement, a fact impossible to verify since Russia doesn’t publicly release such data. (Grynspan told the Security Council that Russian wheat exports tripled from July to September, though she didn’t compare it to a previous time period.) Nebenzia has said that Russia’s main ask is for his country’s banks to be reinstated into the Swift financial transaction system. The European Union has banned Russia from participating in the network.
“What we have called the ‘chilling effect’ of the sanctions on the private sector, overcompliance, reputational risks and market avoidance are still a real obstacle,” Grynspan told the Council.
Ukraine’s ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told the Council that his country remained committed to the grain deal, a sentiment repeated on Twitter by his president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Monday:
“Thanks to the critical efforts of Russian experts, the Black Sea traffic amounted to considerable volumes and rates (approximately 1 million tonnes exported weekly), while the progress of the Russia-UN memorandum for agricultural exports remained at zero point,” Nebenzia said at the Council.
Most of the other Council members — including China and India — called for the renewal of the grain deal, which many diplomats said had been successful in lowering food prices and fending off famine in regions like the Horn of Africa. Some countries, like France, accused Russia of using hunger as a “weapon” in suspending its role in the grain deal. Britain noted that Russia forgot to mention that its Black Sea fleet “is illegally occupying Ukrainian waters and bombing Ukrainian towns.”
The US, which supports Grynspan’s aim to expand the deal, said: “Russia’s announcement to suspend its participation in the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative is deeply concerning and fundamentally irresponsible. We urge Russia to keep this essential, life-saving arrangement functioning and allow food exports to move to the world market, to reach countries that need it most.”
Kenya said it could not “overstate” the deal’s “importance to the world” and that the Sevastopol attack should not “endanger global food security.”
Ukraine has said that Putin had intended to withdraw from the grain deal for weeks, as evidenced by Russian inspectors involved in the Joint Coordination Center slow-walking inspections since September. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, tweeted on Oct. 30: “By suspending its participation in the grain deal on a false pretext of explosions 220 kilometers away from the grain corridor, Russia blocks 2 million tons of grain on 176 vessels already at sea — enough to feed over 7 million people. Russia has planned this well in advance.”
Türkiye, a co-lead in the UN-brokered grain deal, remains a vital player in keeping it going. The country’s envoy also spoke at Monday’s Council session, saying, “Children around the world, from Afghanistan to Ethiopia, Somalia to Yemen, are alive today because of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.”
To emphasize its value, the UN spokesperson pointed out to reporters that in Tunisia, the third of nine vessels from Ukraine arrived over the weekend, “bringing more than 78,000 tonnes of soft wheat to the country.” A fourth vessel is scheduled to land soon in Tunis, with 30,000 tons of corn. “The supply from these shipments is expected to cover one third of monthly import needs of wheat and corn to Tunisia,” Stéphane Dujarric noted. “These are commercial vessels. They are not humanitarian shipments.”
This article was updated to include information about Russia’s retaliations on Oct. 31, 2022.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.