Ukraine and Russia agree to reopen Black Sea ports for grain export

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Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on Friday to reopen Ukrainian Black Sea ports to grain exports, raising hopes that an international food crisis aggravated by the Russian invasion can be alleviated.

The pact capped two months of talks with the mediation of the United Nations and Turkey to achieve what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called a “package” that would restore Ukrainian grain exports and facilitate Russian grain and fertilizer shipments despite harsh western sanctions imposed on Moscow.

Guterres said the deal paves the way for significant volumes of commercial food exports from three key Ukrainian ports: Odessa, Chernomorsk and Yuzhny, and that the UN would create a coordination center to supervise its application.

But fighting continued unabated in eastern Ukraine and, underscoring the deep enmity and mistrust, the Russian and Ukrainian representatives refused to sit at the same table at the ceremony, and the display of the flags of both countries was adjusted so that they were no longer side by side.

“In case of provocations, (there will be) an immediate military response” from Ukraine’s side, tweeted Mykhailo Podoloyak, a presidential adviser in kyiv.

Russia and Ukraine, two of the world’s leading food exporters, sent their defense and infrastructure ministers, respectively, to Istanbul for the signing ceremony, which was also attended by Guterres and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attended.

The blockade of the Russian Black Sea fleet has exacerbated global supply chain disruptions and, along with Western sanctions imposed on Moscow, has fueled high food and energy price inflation since Russian forces stormed Ukraine on February 24.

UN officials said on Friday that the deal is expected to be fully operational within a few weeks.

It will be guaranteed safe passage to and from ports in what one official called a “de facto ceasefire” for ships and covered facilities, they said, though the word “ceasefire” was not in the text of the agreement.

Although Ukraine has mined nearby offshore areas as part of its defenses against the Russian invasion five months ago, specialists would guide ships through safe channels in its territorial waters, the sources said.

Some 20 million tons of grain they are stuck in the silos of Odessa, and dozens of ships have been stranded by Moscow’s offensive.

Russia has denied responsibility for the worsening food crisis, instead blaming Western sanctions for curbing its own food and fertilizer exports and Ukraine for mine the approaches to its Black Sea ports.

Turkey, a NATO member that maintains good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, controls the strait that empties into the Black Sea and has acted as a mediator on the grain issue.

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