Ships loaded with grain departed Ukraine on Tuesday despite Russia suspending its participation in a UN-brokered deal that ensures safe wartime passage of critical food supplies meant for parts of the world struggling with hunger.
The United Nations said three ships carrying 84,490 metric tonnes of corn, wheat and sunflower meal left through a humanitarian sea corridor set up in July. The corridor, brokered by Turkey and UN, was seen as a breakthrough that would 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 of the grain deal. The Russian defence 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 UN World Food Programme to bring wheat to Ethiopia, which, along with neighbouring Somalia and Kenya, is badly affected by the worst drought in decades.
Analysts say Russia still is bound by the terms of the grain deal it signed, which include a commitment not to target civilian vessels that are taking part in the agreement. 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,” said Munro Anderson, head of intelligence of the risk consultancy company Dryad Global.
Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasised to reporters Monday night that Moscow was “not saying that we are ending our participation” in the grain deal but “we are talking about the fact that we are suspending” it. The move drew outcry from Ukraine, the United States and other allies.
Anderson said Russia was “unlikely to mount any overt action against any vessels operating within the parameters of the original deal”, though the risks were as high as ever of Russia attacking Ukrainian grain silos, other agricultural infrastructure or targets at sea.
However, the future of the initiative is unclear as the risks have potentially increased, Anderson said. Now, the UN operation is moving to prioritise a large backlog of ships waiting for inspections off Istanbul, he said.
“I think at the moment, the situation is such that no vessels inbound or currently signed up to the initiative that are not already in processing are going to proceed until there’s further clarity on the Russian position on continued participation,” he said.
Plus, in terms of insuring cargo ships picking up Ukrainian grain, “rates are going to go up and likely be prohibitive”, said Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington.
After suspending its part of the grain agreement, “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 fertiliser 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 Moscow’s food and fertiliser shipments, some businesses have been wary of running afoul of sanctions.
Russia’s primary concern is likely that vessels would go unchecked and could be used to bring in weapons, which is why a Joint Coordination Center was established in Istanbul to coordinate checks between the warring nations, Turkey and the UN.
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.