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Wednesday, 28 September 2022
Unblocking the Black Sea 
James Denselow

Türkiye’s President Erdogan has suddenly found himself at the centrepiece of one of the key geopolitical questions of the day; how to ensure that the Russian invasion of Ukraine doesn’t supercharge a world hunger crisis that could see millions die. His unique part in this political drama has seen him go quickly from attending a NATO summit in Madrid to hosting the leaders of Russia and Iran back home to agree a deal to unblock the Black Sea. 

Erdogan was backed up by huge amounts of engagement from the most senior echelons of the UN. Out of this last week came the “unprecedented agreement” on the resumption of Ukrainian grain exports via the Black Sea amid the ongoing war is “a beacon of hope” in a world that desperately needs it, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the signing ceremony in Istanbul, Türkiye. 

Ukraine was one of the world’s leading agricultural exporters prior to the Russian invasion six months ago. Before the war, Ukraine accounted for 10% of the world’s wheat exports, 14% of its corn and half its sunflower oil, and was known as the “breadbasket of the world.” When the invasion began there was an estimated stock of some 25m tonnes of corn and wheat trapped in Ukraine – equivalent to the annual consumption of the world’s least developed economies. 

It is worth remembering that as many as 828 million people globally were affected by hunger in 2021, an increase of 150 million since the outbreak of the pandemic. The number will rise even higher in 2022 as a result of severe weather events and the war in Ukraine. Nowhere is this more acute than in Somalia and the Horn of Africa where the worst drought in 40 years threatens to kill hundreds of thousands of children in the next few months. 

Denied the access to a Black Sea which has been mined and blockaded off as part of the conflict, only 5.2m tonnes of Ukrainian food stock has managed to leave the country over 6-months, the equivalent to normally what is moved in a single month. Food of course should never be weaponised, aid should never be delayed, obstructed or denied. Yet the agreement was good news but one that observers flagged would depend on trust which is almost entirely absent at the time of brutal war. 

Indeed, Russia launched a missile attack on Ukraine’s key grain-exporting port of Odessa, officials said, hours after signing the international agreement to ease its blockade of the Black Sea coastline and allow for the safe transport of grain and other foodstuffs necessary to alleviate this looming global food crisis. Wheat prices rose sharply after the strike as doubts were raised about whether it will be possible to implement last week's agreement. This incident showed how soon things could potentially unravel through the unpredictability of violence and will have been sobering viewing for any of the crew that are lined up to sail the vessels that have to operate the newly ‘safe’ route.  

Beyond the physical dangers for ships having to avoid mines and other weapons of war, there is the question as to whether the new mechanisms can allow food to move quickly enough. The process that has been agreed to is predictably complex in order to satisfy the number of parties involved. It involves two ‘coordination centres’ staffed by Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and UN officials and a series of checks of the ships to ensure there are being used for the purposes that have been agreed to. Inspection teams will monitor the onloading of grain at the three ports. Ukrainian pilot vessels will guide the ships through the Black Sea, which is mined, after which they will head out through the Bosphorus Strait along an agreed corridor. 

The deal is valid for 120 days and targets monthly exports of 5 million tonnes. The invasion itself has lasted for just over 150 days and has already gone through a series of phases that remind us that we cannot really know what will happen next. One aspect of this deal, beyond its intent to unblock the Black Sea, is whether it can provide good offices for Ukrainian and Russian diplomats to engage on the wider issues of war and peace that are so essentially to bring the conflict to an end.


BY: James Denselow