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GENEVA, March 15 — The UN was scrambling yesterday to ensure a Ukrainian grain exports deal aimed to ease the global food crisis can continue, but its fate remained unclear days before the March 18 expiry date.

Talks between top Russian and United Nations officials in Geneva ended Monday with Moscow saying it would not oppose prolonging the so-called Black Sea Grain Initiative, as many had feared.

But citing concerns that a parallel agreement on unhindered Russian food and fertiliser exports was not being respected, it proposed just a 60-day extension — only half the period stipulated in the original deal.

Ukraine immediately said Russia’s proposal “contradicts” the original agreement, but Kyiv did not immediately reject it, saying it would wait for the official positions of the UN and Turkey, the guarantors of the initiative.

The UN on Tuesday hinted there could be some flexibility on the extension period.

“The agreement foresees a renewal of 120 days but, in the present circumstances, the Secretary-General and his team are focused, in close contact with all the parties, on doing everything possible to ensure continuity of the Initiative,” UN chief Antonio Guterres’s spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday.

‘Essentially inactive’

His statement marked at least the third time in 24 hours that the UN has vowed to pull out all the stops to save the agreement intended to dampen the global food crisis sparked by Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour in February 2022.

Ukraine, one of the world’s top grain producers, saw its Black Sea ports blocked by warships until the deal, signed last July, allowed for the safe passage of critical grain exports.

More than 24.4 million tonnes have been exported so far under the agreement, according to the UN.

The initial 120-day agreement struck with the UN and Turkey was extended in November for a further 120 days, until March 18.

Prior to Monday’s meeting, the Kremlin had cast doubt on whether it would agree to any fresh extension, given its concerns over the twin deal aimed to facilitate exports of Russian food and fertiliser.

While these products are supposed to be exempt from the sanctions slapped on Russia by Kyiv’s allies, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin, who headed the Russian delegation at Monday’s talks, said those exemptions were “essentially inactive”.

Moscow’s demands revolve around “bank payments, transport logistics, insurance, and unfreezing of financial activities and ammonia supplies via the Tolyatti-Odessa pipeline”, he said.

‘Critical’ for food security

Dujarric insisted Tuesday that Rebeca Grynspan, who heads the UN trade and development agency UNCTAD, her team and UN chief Guterres himself “have spared no efforts to facilitate” the parallel Russian deal.

“Meaningful progress has been made but it is true that some obstacles remain, notably with regard to payment systems,” he acknowledged.

“Our efforts to overcome those obstacles will continue unabated.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile told reporters Tuesday that Russia “appreciated the UN efforts,” but said “Guterres has not managed to break through the wall erected by a collective West.”

For instance, only a small portion of the 260,000 tonnes of Russian fertilisers stuck in European ports have been unblocked since the start of the war.

The UN’s World Food Programme is working to help ship out that fertiliser, which is being considered as a humanitarian donation by the Russian firm Uralchem/Uralkali.

The first boatload of 20,000 tonnes of Nitrogen Phosphorus Potassium (NPK) left from the Netherlands on a WFP-chartered vessel on November 29, bound for Malawi via a port in Mozambique.

And a WFP spokeswoman told AFP on Tuesday that the UN agency was in the process of chartering a vessel to transport another 34,000 metric tonnes of chemicals used in the fertiliser production from Latvia to Kenya.

The two parallel agreements “are both critical for global food security, especially in developing countries”, Dujarric said. — AFP