Ukraine hopes to start implementing a deal to export millions of tons of grain from blockaded Black Sea ports as soon as this week, even after Russian missile strikes hit the key Ukrainian port city of Odesa and threatened to unravel the agreement.
Preparations include demining essential areas for maritime traffic and setting up special naval corridors for the safe passage of merchant vessels, as well as the setting up of a co-ordination center in Istanbul, where the deal, brokered by the UN and Turkey, was inked on Friday.
The plans are moving ahead, a Ukrainian official said on Monday, despite the Odesa strikes, which Ukraine previously described as violating Russia’s promise not to attack grain infrastructure and calling the entire deal into question. Russia said it targeted military infrastructure in the port.
“Hopefully, it will be implemented in the coming days when the special co-ordination center would be open in . . . Istanbul,” Ukraine’s minister for infrastructure Oleksandr Kurbakov said at a briefing on Monday. “Some time this week, we hope this whole process will start.”
Kurbakov stressed the importance of the exports for Ukraine’s economy, describing the free export of grain as “a matter of survival” for Ukraine’s agricultural sector, in turn the second-largest contributor to the country’s economy.
“Under such dire economic circumstances, it’s important that Ukraine gets an inflow of hard currency by de-blocking ports,” he said. He added it brought $1bn to the country’s budget per month, citing finance ministry and national bank data.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey said on Monday evening that Ankara remained committed to its end of the agreement and that work continued on operations that would be based in Istanbul,
“We can see how sensitive the process is with the attack on the Odesa port on Saturday,” Erdoğan said in an interview with state broadcaster TRT. “We are saddened by this happening, and a failure here will be to everyone’s detriment. We are reminding them of this.
“We expect everyone to stand by signatures and to act in line with the responsibilities they assume and avoid actions that are contrary to the agreement’s words and spirit,” he said.
Since President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, Russia’s navy has blocked Ukraine’s commercial sea routes, launched strikes on its ports and grain storage infrastructure, and attacked civilian grain transport ships.
This trapped 22mn tons of wheat, corn and other grains in the country, with the conflict as many as 47mn people leaving globally at risk of acute hunger, according to the World Food Programme.
The deal should introduce a “de facto ceasefire” with Ukraine and Russia agreeing not to attack merchant vessels, civilian vessels or port facilities covered by the agreement.
But it will be tested by the conflict. Demining the maritime routes would also be difficult, Kurbakov noted. Even second world war mines were detected from time to time, he said. “All of the ships will be convoyed by the Ministry of Infrastructure boats leading the way and it’s not going to be an easy process.”
Speaking during a visit on Sunday to Egypt, which has historically relied on Ukraine and Russian for most of its wheat imports, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov sought to counter accusations that Russia had been “exporting hunger” with its Black Sea blockade.
Lavrov also provided further details about the deal, saying it would be implemented via a co-ordination center in Istanbul, Ukraine would be “engaged in demining, letting the ships into the open sea,” and “Russia, Turkey and another participant to be determined, [will] escort the ship to the Bosphorus [Strait].”
Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Ankara