Fred Weir and Howard LaFranchi: Why Ukraine-Russia grain deal holds promise beyond food

close up of wheat
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By Fred Weir and Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor, 7/26/22

The agreement between Russia and Ukraine to allow the safe export of up to 20 million tons of Ukrainian wheat and other grains offers hope of easing an acute global food crisis and comes as especially good news for people in the Horn of Africa.

From Ethiopia to Eritrea and Kenya, high food prices and staples shortages have contributed to several of the world’s most dire hunger hotspots. In recent years, Eritrea has relied on Ukraine for virtually all its wheat imports.

But the grain export deal – brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, and the first major accord between the two bitter antagonists since Russia’s invasion Feb. 24 – will only help stave off looming famine in Somalia, for example, if it is allowed to work as spelled out in the agreement, and relatively quickly, experts say.

On one hand, events suggest the deal reached Friday may be offering as much false hope as genuine relief from a crisis that experts say has left more than 800 million people in some state of food insecurity.

Indeed Saturday, within hours of signing the deal, Russia sent missiles crashing into the Black Sea port of Odesa, one of several Ukrainian ports that under the deal could resume safely shipping grains to global markets. On Monday Ukraine, citing the missile attacks, said it would seek additional security guarantees to pursue implementation of the agreement.

“Yes, if the deal pulls off exactly as described it will be helpful, but it won’t make the food crisis go away,” says Daniel Maxwell, professor in Food Security at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition.

Noting that world food prices were already at critically high levels last year, Dr. Maxwell says Russia’s war in Ukraine has combined with existing drought and conflict to create a perfect storm of food supply disruption. Returning the two breadbaskets to the global market would ease pressure on supplies and prices – but first the deal has to work.

And “as the … attacks on Odesa show,” he says, “it is unlikely to pull off exactly as described.”

At the same time, others say, the world should not lose sight of the hope the deal offers, not just for easing the global food crisis, but potentially for encouraging more diplomatic breakthroughs in the five-month-old war.

Despite the attack on Odesa’s port, which Russia justified as intended for a military target, Ukraine’s deputy minister for infrastructure, Yuriy Vaskov, told reporters Monday that within two weeks he expects all Black Sea ports to be consistently exporting agricultural products.

More broadly, implementation of the agreement is going to require continuing contacts among the deal’s four signatories, which some say at least opens the door to further cooperation and diplomacy.

“The most important thing, the channels of cooperation are now open,” says Waheguru Pal Sidhu, an expert in international relations and U.N. diplomatic efforts at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

“The process of implementation of this deal means that all four parties will have to remain engaged, and we know from experience that over time, such mechanisms can build cooperation and even respect,” he says. “So I wouldn’t say categorically that this is just a one off, because potentially it could expand into other conversations.”

“Beacon in the Black Sea”

Under the deal, Russia would lift its blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports for verified food shipments, while Ukraine would remove mines it placed in its waters to repel a Russian sea invasion. Ukraine grain shipments would resume by sea through Turkey, while the U.N. would assist Russia with its own grain and fertilizer shipments.

The deal was the first sign of diplomacy working in Russia’s war, with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres calling it a “beacon in the Black Sea.”

But if weeks of negotiations involving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Mr. Guterres finally succeeded, it was not so much because the two sides are ready for diplomacy to stop the fighting, analysts say, but because the deal gives each side things they desperately wanted.

Ukraine, which normally supplies about 12% of wheat on the global market, is anxious to empty its stuffed grain silos before spoilage sets in and the summer harvest swings into full gear.

Russia wants to resume exporting grains and fertilizers as well, but it has another motivation, experts say: Sensitive to global perceptions, Moscow was keenly aware that the Western charge it was “weaponizing food” was taking root.

“This is important for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, he has consistently argued that Russia is a responsible player that is always willing to meet its obligations, as long as no obstacles are set up by its opponents,” says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “Russia has long been trying to convince the global community that this conflict is not the main cause of the food crisis. It may be a catalyst, but the crisis is much deeper.”

Yet the viability of the grain deal remains burdened by the still intense military conflict.

The United States has widely shared declassified intelligence and satellite imagery confirming the Russian Navy’s mining of the ports of Odesa and Ochakiv, while offering evidence that Russia mined the Dnipro River intending to cut off maritime trade. Last week Britain’s Foreign Office condemned what it said was Russia’s shelling of civilian infrastructure, including grain shipment facilities, aimed at halting grain exports and in turn laying waste to the next harvest.

For some analysts, Russia’s missile attacks on Odesa’s port were not so much aimed at jettisoning the deal, but at reminding Ukraine that deal or no deal, it remains capable of striking anywhere it chooses.

Russian message to Africa

Others say the timing of Russia’s acceptance of the deal may not have been coincidental: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is currently on a visit to Africa, where he is able to show this deal as a practical demonstration to regional leaders that Russia is concerned about the food shortages and taking action to remedy the situation.

“Lavrov has many things to discuss with African leaders, but food is one of those issues that Russia can leverage to its advantage,” says Mr. Kortunov. “The timing of this deal is fortuitous, and the pieces fall together pretty well. Putin gets the deal, and Lavrov can emphasize it in his meetings in Africa.”

Like Professor Sidhu, some Russian experts cite the increasingly acrimonious information war, noting that Moscow cares very much what countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa think, if not the West.

“Being blamed for world starvation is not what Russia would like,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “But Russian leaders seem to care less and less about accusations hurled against them by the West.”

In any case, many Russian analysts say they give the grain deal good odds of succeeding – because all parties have an interest in it, and despite the Odesa attack.

“To strike the port so soon after the deal was made, even if no grain facilities were touched” was “a bit strange,” says Mr. Lukyanov. “It’s either a brutal message that, deal or no deal, the war will continue as usual or, perhaps, just chaotic decision-making. Either way,” he adds, “it probably won’t derail the agreement. Everyone wants it to work.”

Diplomatic seed

Even so, few in Russia seem to think the grain deal suddenly portends bright days ahead for a broader diplomatic push to end the war. As many see it, the Kremlin still has key military objectives, such as completing the conquest of the Donbas region, before returning to negotiations.

Still, some say the grain deal may have planted a seed that could grow into something larger.

This deal “is just a small, incremental technical agreement [but] if it works, it will demonstrate that Russia and Ukraine can find ways to take necessary steps,” says Mr. Kortunov.

NYU’s Professor Sidhu notes that the grain deal is the second instance of U.N. involvement in negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, the first being talks that led to the release of civilians and fighters trapped at Mariupol’s devastated Azovstal steel works.

And he says the U.N. is likely to be part of any future negotiations between two parties that have no level of trust between them.

“Trust is still very much absent, so if anything is going to work it will require involvement of more than just the two, and it’s going to follow the old adage, ‘Mistrust, and verify,’” he says. “So verification is going to be key to this agreement, but eventually the verification process may lead the way to something larger.”

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