13 March 2023

60-day extension of wartime grain export deal acceptable, says Russia

13 March 2023

A Russian delegation at talks with senior UN officials has said Moscow is ready to accept an extension to a grain export deal that has helped bring down global food prices amid the war with Ukraine – but only for 60 days as the Kremlin holds out for changes to how the arrangement is working.

The United Nations said in a statement that it “notes” the Russian announcement about the extension and reaffirmed its support for the deal struck in July as “part of the global response to the most severe cost-of-living crisis in a generation”.

The UN and Turkey brokered the deal between the two warring countries that allows Ukraine – one of the world’s key breadbaskets – to ship food and fertiliser from three of its Black Sea ports.

The 120-day agreement, which helped take some of the sting out of rising global food prices, was renewed last November.

That extension expires on Saturday, and another 120-day extension was on the table.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the Russian proposal to extend it only for 60 days goes against the original agreement.

“The UN secretary-general has confirmed that the UN will do everything possible to preserve the integrity of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and ensure its continuity,” the UN statement said.

It stressed that the deal had paved the way for the export of 24 million tons of grain and more than 1,600 trips by vessels through the Black Sea – with more than half of the exports destined for developing countries.

Moscow has been frustrated that a parallel deal to allow exports of Russian food and fertiliser, which is used across the globe, has only resulted in a trickle of Russian fertiliser getting out and no Russian grain at all.

“The comprehensive and frank conversation has once again confirmed that while the commercial export of Ukrainian products is carried out at a steady pace, bringing considerable profits to Kyiv, restrictions on the Russian agricultural exporters are still in place,” the Russian delegation said in a statement.

“The sanctions exemptions for food and fertilisers announced by Washington, Brussels and London are essentially inactive,” it claimed.

As part of the arrangement, Moscow wants Russian ammonia to be fed through a pipeline across Ukraine to reach Black Sea ports for possible export.

Russian officials also say banking restrictions and high insurance costs have hurt their hopes of exporting fertiliser.

Rebeca Grynspan, secretary-general of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and Martin Griffiths, the head of the UN humanitarian agency, hosted a team led by Russian deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin at UN offices in Geneva.

A lot is at stake – Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where millions of people do not have enough to eat.

Russia was also the world’s top exporter of fertiliser before the war.

The loss of those supplies, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, drove global food prices higher and fuelled concerns of a hunger crisis in poorer countries.

The so-called Black Sea Grain Initiative involves seaborne checks of cargo by UN, Russian, Ukrainian and Turkish officials to ensure that only foodstuffs – not weapons – are being transported.

The amount of grain leaving Ukraine has dropped even as the deal works to keep food flowing.

Inspections of ships under the grain initiative have fallen sharply since they got rolling in earnest in September, and vessels have been backed up.

Western critics accuse Russia of dragging its heels on inspections. Moscow denies that.

Though the grain deal helped stabilise global food prices, there are still concerns about the impact on prices of possible trade restrictions and weather, especially heatwaves, said Michael Puma, director of Columbia University’s Centre for Climate Systems Research whose research focuses on global food security.

“Big picture, we’re pretty fortunate that the weather conditions have allowed… high levels of production across many of the grains,” he said.

On the front lines in Ukraine, the eastern city of Bakhmut remained the site of fierce fighting, with Ukrainian forces denying Russian forces the prize of its capture after six months of attrition.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian millionaire with ties to President Vladimir Putin who owns the Wagner private military company, has repeatedly claimed that only the Wagner fighters, not the regular army, are involved in battles for Bakhmut.

His claims could not be independently verified.

“The situation around Bakhmut remains difficult,” said Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the Ukrainian Commander of Ground Forces.

“Wagner’s assault units are advancing from several directions, trying to break through the defences of our troops and advance to the central districts of the city.”

Ukraine’s presidential office said on Monday that four civilians were killed and 11 wounded in the country over the previous 24 hours.

Two people were killed in the southern Mykolaiv region on Monday morning, when the Russian forces shelled the village of Kutsurub.

Three more people, including a seven-year-old child, were wounded there.

On Monday, one civilian was killed in Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, where the building of a school was destroyed.

Another person was killed by the shelling of Znob-Novhorodske in the northern Sumy region that also wounded four local residents.

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