It took less than 24 hours for Russia to violate a U.N.-brokered deal to unblock Black Sea ports so 22 million tons of stored grain can be shipped to dozens of countries threatened with hunger if the wheat and barley harvested last winter are left to rot in Ukrainian silos.
The Kremlin admitted Sunday that it fired high-precision missiles on the port of Odessa, claiming to have struck a Ukrainian warship and a weapons depot. Three more missiles landed near the port and its grain-storage area Sunday, two of which were downed by Ukrainian ground-to-air batteries, Ukrainian military officials said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov signed separate agreements with the United Nations Friday promising to allow their respective shipments through the Black Sea to proceed without harassment and guaranteeing safe passage across the naval battleground. Much of the grain is destined for hungry populations heavily dependent on Ukraine and Russia for staple foods.
The Russian attacks drew harsh criticism from the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations on behalf of the many countries that blame Russia for a looming global food crisis. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who played a key role in negotiating the blockade-breaking deal, “unequivocally condemns” the Russian breach, a U.N. spokesman reported.
“This attack casts serious doubt on the credibility of Russia’s commitment to yesterday’s deal and undermines the work of the U.N., Turkey and Ukraine to get critical food to world markets,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement late Saturday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky denounced Russia’s air strikes – which the Kremlin initially denied. “This proves only one thing: No matter what Russia says and promises, it will find ways not to implement it.”
No grain storage facilities were hit by the four Kalibr rockets fired into the port Saturday, nor was loading activity at Odessa’s docks disrupted, Ukrainian military spokeswoman Nataliya Humenyuk told reporters. Kubrakov, responsible for port operations as infrastructure minister, posted on Facebook that “technical preparations for the launch of exports” continue.
Black Sea trade and shipping officials predict it will be at least a month or two before grain exports resume. They estimate five million tons of grain can be shipped out monthly once the ports and sea lanes are secured and that it will take four or five months to empty the silos holding grain marooned by transport disruptions and combat activity in Ukraine’s breadbaskets.
Both Russian and Ukrainian officials have vowed a swift military response in the event of “provocations” from the other side.
Even if Russia’s attacks were a peevish parting shot after its pledge to lift the naval blockade, the operation to deliver food for 50 million people in 45 countries at risk of starvation this winter faces daunting obstacles.
According to the separate agreements Guterres signed with the combatants Friday, merchant ships granted safe passage must ply fixed “maritime humanitarian corridors” and keep their as-yet-unspecified distance from any military ships, aircraft, or drones.
The grain-carrying vessels are to be tracked by a U.N.-supervised Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul where any conflicts that arise are to be decided by representatives from Turkey, Ukraine and Russia. But the JCC has yet to be established or its dispute-resolving delegates named. Nor have the safe corridor routes been designated nor a plan devised for removing the mines laid near port entrances soon after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. The U.N. officials who brokered the deal concede they have no means of enforcement if either side is deemed in violation of the shipping and security procedures.
Ukrainian marine pilots, not military escorts, will guide ships in Ukrainian waters. The JCC, when it exists, will be responsible for inspecting ships and their cargo in Turkish ports as they make their way through the Strait of Bosporus. The agreements must be renewed by both combatant parties every four months, an initial period that may expire before the Ukrainian carriers can ship out last harvest’s grain and open silos needed when the crop is ready for cutting in the next few weeks.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to success in getting grain where it is needed, primarily poor and climate-challenged countries suffering drought and famine, is that the deals to lift the blockade have no impact on the fighting that rages in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied east and south regions. Five months of Russian shelling and rocket strikes have destroyed fields and grain silos and damaged rail and road routes that could have been used to ship out more of the trapped grain overland.
A British military report Sunday said Russia was making “minimal progress” in its months-long effort to conquer more territory around Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk region. It also confirmed Ukrainian troop movements from the bogged-down Donbas region to within firing range of Russian-occupied Kherson, the gateway to Crimea which Russia invaded and annexed in 2014.
“Operators will be extra cautious and will wait to see many days of suspended military operations before daring to operate ships in the area,” David Laborde, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, wrote in an email.
The deal penned Friday also covers fertilizer, of which Russia is a major producer. Timely deliveries to farmers worldwide will be essential for keeping the planting season on schedule, Steve Taravella, a spokesman for the World Food Program, reported in an email.
Western sanctions on Russia don’t restrict delivery of humanitarian goods like food, medicine, and agricultural products but shipping companies, bankers and insurers have shied away from helping Russia ship its grain out of the Black Sea naval battleground for fear of vessel or crew losses and the prospect of being accused of violating sanctions.
Some of the countries most vulnerable to delayed or undelivered grain from Ukraine are in the Middle East and Africa, where drought and failed harvests have left what the United Nations says are 828 million people at risk of food insecurity.
Mounting international scorn for Russia’s hunger-inducing blockade prompted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to embark on a four-nation tour of the Middle East and Northern Africa on Sunday to defend against accusations that Russia’s Ukraine invasion has caused the global food crisis.
Lavrov met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry to claim Western countries are distorting the facts of the supply chain disruptions and skyrocketing costs for bread, pasta and cereals on which Egypt is the biggest importer from both Ukraine and Russia. Bread prices have nearly doubled in Egypt due to the flour shortages, forcing the Cairo government to intervene with subsidies.
Lavrov promised that Russia would fulfill its commitment to provide Egypt with wheat and fertilizer. His diplomatic offensive includes stops in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Congo.