As Russia’s war with Ukraine entered the fifth month on Friday, there emerged a scintilla of hope for the hungry with the joint agreement to free more than 20 million metric tonnes of grain stuck in the blockaded Black Sea ports of Ukraine. The agreement is intrinsically aimed at reducing the burgeoning grain prices and addressing a mounting global hunger crisis. The breakthrough has been brokered by the United Nations and Turkey. The grain pact, so to speak, envisages the praxis for the export of Ukrainian grain through Turkey, and it comes after the UN advanced the assurance to Russia that it can export its grain and fertilizer. It is fervently to be hoped that Friday’s agreement will help ease catastrophic food shortages that have worsened ever since Russia invaded Ukraine on 23 February.
As it has turned out, the invasion has reverberated across the global economy. For one thing, it has contributed to famine in Africa and has threatened political unrest in several countries. “The deal is a beacon in the Black Sea,” was the immediate response of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres. Senior UN officials are fairly optimistic that the first shipments of grain out of Odessa and neighbouring ports are only weeks away. The shipments will quickly bring five million metric tonnes of Ukrainian grain and other foodstuff to the world market each month. It will also free up storage space in Ukraine’s silos for freshly harvested grain. Friday’s agreement was the first time that representatives of Russia and the former Soviet satellite have publicly signed an agreement. It is doubtless a critical step forward, and the Turks can be credited with an “elegant approach” to the problem.
Yet it would be difficult to speedily deliver food to where it is most needed. Transportation of grain through the Black Sea in wartime conditions is extremely complex. The agreement is explicit on the point that the commercial and civilian ships involved, as well as the port facilities, will not be attacked. However, Russian security guarantees do not extend to parts of the Ukranian ports that are not directly used for the export of grain. Under the provisions of the agreement, Ukranian captains will steer the vessels with grain out of Odessa and the neighbouring ports through safe passages that have been mapped by the Ukrainian navy to avoid mines. A joint command centre with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials will be set up in Istanbul very shortly. Teams from all these countries and the United Nations will jointly inspect the vessels to ensure that they are not carrying weapons back to Ukraine once they have unloaded their cargo of grain. The comity of nations must now hope that hunger and starvation will eventually be addressed amidst the clash of shields and wartime rhetoric.