Russia’s refusal to extend the Black Sea grain deal, announced early Monday morning by the Kremlin, dominated the United Nations Security Council’s session on Ukraine in the afternoon. The news from Moscow rejecting the renewal of the initiative — signed by Russia, Ukraine, Türkiye and the UN nearly one year ago — was already widely reported by the time the Council met.
The deal officially ends on July 18, and according to a person close to the situation, shipping Ukrainian foodstuffs through the three Black Sea ports involved in the deal cannot occur without Russia’s cooperation.
The responses from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to the news were the most visceral. “Ukraine’s position has always been and will be as clear as possible — no one has the right to destroy the food security of any nation,” he tweeted Monday afternoon. “If a bunch of people somewhere in the Kremlin think that they supposedly have the right to decide whether food will be on the table in different countries: Egypt or Sudan, Yemen or Bangladesh, China or India, Türkiye or Indonesia . . . then the world has an opportunity to show that blackmail is not allowed to anyone.”
He added a few details for an alternative plan to the Black Sea arrangement: “And I have sent official letters to President of Türkiye @RTErdogan and UN Secretary General @antonioguterres with a proposal to continue the Black Sea Grain Initiative or its analog in a trilateral format – as it is best. Ukraine, the UN and Türkiye can jointly ensure the operation of the food corridor and the inspection of vessels.”
Ukraine's position has always been and will be as clear as possible – no one has the right to destroy the food security of any nation. If a bunch of people somewhere in the Kremlin think that they supposedly have the right to decide whether food will be on the table in different… pic.twitter.com/87LEvGJyNu— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 17, 2023
The reaction to Moscow’s decision by Secretary-General António Guterres, who brokered the deal last year with Türkiye to overcome the wartime blockade, was also adamant. He has staked much of his energy and time on assuring the deal’s endurance in the last year.
“I deeply regret the decision by the Russian Federation to terminate the implementation of the Black Sea Initiative — including the withdrawal of Russian security guarantees for navigation in the northwestern part of the Black Sea,” Guterres said, reading a statement to reporters on Monday morning at the UN. “This Initiative has ensured the safe passage of over 32 million metric tons of food commodities from Ukrainian ports.”
The deal has been lambasted by Russia from the start for its seeming one-sided shipments of most of Ukraine’s grain exports to well-off countries, which the UN has refuted with its own data, reiterating that secondary sales were not tracked by the organization, so grain purchases could have landed in other countries eventually. Guterres said that the deal had enabled more than 725,000 metric tons to support operations by the World Food Program, “relieving hunger in some of the hardest hit corners of the world, including Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Yemen.”
Guterres also said that the deal has helped to reduce food prices by more than 23 percent since March 2022, noting that “Russian grain trade has reached high export volumes, and fertilizer markets are stabilizing with Russian exports nearing full recovery,” citing the Russian Union of Grain Exporters and Russian Fertilizer Producers Association. (The government does not disclose this information publicly.)
China appears to be the main first beneficiary of the grain exports. When the UN ambassador was asked by a reporter on Monday if China was disappointed about Russia’s decision, Zhang Jun said, without finishing his sentence: “We are following the process closely, but I don’t think answering your question is. . . .”
The Security Council scheduled the July 17 session to concentrate, as it does regularly, on the humanitarian disaster engulfing Ukraine since Russia’s full invasion in February 2022. When Council members gathered, Zelensky had messaged his initial response from Kyiv in the morning to Russia’s announcement:
“I have given the order to our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, following the official signal of the Russian Federation, to prepare our official signals to the United Nations and to Turkey in order to reply to me as the President of Ukraine that they are ready to continue our initiative,” he said. “Even without the Russian Federation, we need to do everything so that we can use this Black Sea corridor. We are not afraid. Companies who are the owners of the ships have contacted us. They said they are ready if Ukraine will release and Turkey will skip, so everyone is ready to continue supplying grain.”
The grain deal offered a “lifeline” for global food security, Guterres said, calling it “a beacon of hope in a troubled world.” The deal, signed on July 22, 2022, in Istanbul, was accompanied by a separate agreement between the UN and Russia to help Russia export its own grains, fertilizer and ammonia (an essential ingredient for fertilizers) to reach global markets — especially developing countries — amid the myriad obstacles presented by the war. These include sanctions on Russia and potential customers of its foodstuffs being wary of doing business with a country that is ruthlessly aggressing another country. Although the side agreement was integral to the mission of the Black Sea initiative, it was troubled from the start.
Despite Russian grain and fertilizer continuing to be exported at apparently normal rates since the country’s full-scale assault began in Ukraine, its ammonia products have not moved much beyond domestic markets. The problem has irked Russia for the last year, as the UN’s trade expert, Rebeca Grynspan, has been trying to alleviate the problem to little avail. Guterres sent a letter in July to Putin outlining ways to vitalize the UN-Russian arrangement.
Although the letter has not been made public or shared with the Security Council, according to people familiar with the situation, it is unclear if Putin read it as well, and Guterres never got a response from Russia. But he divulged part of it to reporters on July 17. One aspect details how the UN could enable the Russian Agricultural Bank to access the SWIFT banking system after Russia was banned from it last year. This key demand by Russia prompted Guterres to propose that a subsidiary of the Russian bank be set up to operate in SWIFT. But the possibility was a reach, as the European Union would have had to agree to the exemption and creating a bank involves extensive bureaucracy, a Russian official has countered.
The Kremlin repeated its frustration on Monday. “Unfortunately, the part of the Black Sea agreement that concerns Russia has not yet been fulfilled,” Dmitri Peskov, the spokesperson for Putin, said. “As a result, it has been terminated.” The deal was originally planned to last for 120 days and be renewed thereafter. But Russia kept the timelines brief, to two-month extensions, with the last renewal on May 18, expiring on July 17.
“As soon as the Russian part [of the deal] is fulfilled, the Russian side will immediately return to the implementation of this deal,” Peskov added. He noted that Russia’s suspension was made “before the most recent terrorist act on the Crimean Bridge and this attack does not influence Moscow’s decision.” (He was referring to the deadly attack on the Kerch Bridge, which links the Crimean peninsula to Russia, carried out on July 17 by Ukraine’s military and security services.)
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American envoy to the UN, is among numerous countries in the Security Council not buying Russia’s reasons for collapsing the deal. “They are the largest grain exporter through the Black Sea,” she said on Monday. “So this is just another one of their excuses to sabotage what is truly working: the Black Sea Grain Initiative.”
Alternative ways of getting Ukraine’s grain exported have been happening in the last year. Samantha Power, the head of Usaid, is visiting the country, where she said that the United States has been developing alternative routes in Ukraine besides the Black Sea — Danube River ports, roads, transshipment or rail — which have moved around 36 million metric tons, she said. In Odesa on July 18, she said that the US was “mobilizing global pressure” on Russia to reverse its decision, and that the US was talking to Ukraine, the UN and Türkiye on the matter, but that it was also “key that countries that benefit from lower food prices and receive Ukrainian wheat, raise their voices and join us in this diplomacy.”
Oleksandr Kubrakov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, who was with Power in the Black Sea port, added, “we are ready for plan B.”
“We are ready to operate, if the United Nations and Türkiye will do similar,” he continued. “We had this experience in November, we operated during two days [in] only three sides. It was Ukraine, the United Nations, and Türkiye. And probably it was two days of the most fastest inspections.”
Another route that could be used more is the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta. Ukraine shipped 3.33 million ton of grains through there in the first quarter of this year.
Türkiye is not giving up either on the grain deal. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been a guarantor of the Black Sea agreement, was reportedly going to call Putin about his decision to terminate it. Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and Guterres talked by phone on Monday, though no details were disclosed.
In Istanbul, the inspection of merchant vessel TQ SAMSUN was finalized on Monday by the Joint Coordination Center, the UN-led operation implementing the Black Sea deal, and cleared to proceed to the Netherlands carrying 15,553 metric tons of rapeseed and 23,031 metric tons of corn. The vessel left July 16 from Odesa and arrived on July 17 at the northern inspection area near Istanbul in the Black Sea, the center reported, adding: “Inspection started at 17:35 and was concluded at 20:20 Istanbul local time. This was inspection number #1972 conducted under the Initiative.”
This story was updated on July 18.
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach 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 Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working 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.