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Will Efforts to Establish Grain Corridors from Ukraine Succeed?

Will Efforts to Establish Grain Corridors from Ukraine Succeed?

Wednesday, 13 July, 2022 - 07:45

By now, everyone is well aware that Russia and Ukraine are top global producers and exporters of wheat, maize, barley and sunflower oil, as well as other grains. Russia is also a basic provider for fertilizers.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war disrupted their export. The disruption stems from a combination of physical and security conditions and Russia’s deliberate actions of preventing movement of grain from Ukraine. Twenty to million tons of Ukrainian grain are said to be kept in silos and some on board of vessels waiting to be exported.

The United Nations has raised the alarm regarding global food security. As always, the poor are the worst hit and African countries are at the forefront.

Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region including Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan also rely on Ukraine and Russia for their wheat and other grain needs. Price increases in wheat in 2011 and the following developments bring back grim memories in the region.

Traditionally, around 90 percent of Ukrainian grain passes through the Turkish Straits, which is a unique system of waterways consisting of Istanbul, the Marmara Sea and Canakkale Straits. This system connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and stretches 30 kilometers (18 miles).

This strategic passage has been important for centuries. It was a major cause for many wars involving Turks (Ottoman Empire), Russians and others throughout history.

Today, the passage of sea vessels (warships and merchant ships) through the Straits is governed by the Montreux Convention signed in 1936 between Turkey and a number of countries of that time. The Convention lays out the conditions for passage through the Straits.

The general principle is that merchant vessels enjoy freedom of passage under all conditions. On the other hand, the passage of warships is bound by regulations and restrictions.

So, merchant ships carrying grain can pass through the Straits unhindered. The problem is being allowed to leave the port in Ukraine and safe passage in the Black Sea.

Everything man-made or man-managed has an alternative and so do grain shipments from Ukraine (land route through Poland, Romanian ports). But technical problems, such as mismatched railway tracks and port capacities, make things difficult. In order to switch to alternatives, re-organization is needed and this in turn requires time and money.

As part of its efforts to prevent the present crisis from turning into something even much worse, the United Nations is trying to come up with a plan to establish safe corridors for grain exports in the Black Sea.

The general idea is to load from Ukrainian ports, move them unhindered in the Black Sea through sea routes, called corridors, to their final destinations in the Middle East, Africa and other regions. The same route needs to be established for the return journey.

Turkey, which has maintained a level of relationship with Russia and Ukraine, has assumed a role in these efforts.

Ukrainian, Russian, Turkish and United Nations leaders and officials are in contact. Turkish and Russian Foreign Ministers met on the sidelines of G20 Summit in Bali and President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan talked on the phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 11. They discussed the issue of safe corridors.

On Tuesday, Turkish and Russian authorities announced that Ukrainian, Russian and Turkish officials are going to meet in Istanbul on July 13 to discuss grain corridors. United Nations officials will also be present.

The major difficulty is that the two warring sides are extremely hostile and completely distrust each other. It is not easy to have them agree to a set of measures (including security, guarantees, guarantors, regulations and inspections) which all involve extreme sensitivities.

To give just one example, one difficult issue at the negotiations has been what to do with sea mines. The Ukrainians have laid mines in their territorial waters against Russian attempts to invade from the sea and Russia has required that these mines be cleared so that ships carrying grain can sail from their ports and travel in safety. The Ukrainians, however, view this request as a trick so that the Russians would use the grain corridor initiative to get rid of these mines so that they can launch amphibious operations.

The European Union and United States are also working on the issue. I imagine (or rather hope) that all the efforts are complementary and there is cooperation and coordination among those involved.

Since its invasion, reports have said Russia is grabbing Ukrainian grain and shipping it from ports it controls. Russia has rebuffed these claims as propaganda.

In effect, Russia regards whatever it has occupied as its own, together with everything on it, including grain stocks. It is quite clear that Russia is moving grain from Ukraine in a very organized manner.

Just recently, Ukraine made a diplomatic demarche in Ankara, requesting that Turkey seize a Russian ship (Zhibeg Zholy) which it claimed was carrying stolen Ukrainian grain. The ship was stopped and anchored outside the Turkish Black Sea town of Karasu. After a few days of investigation (and surely intense contacts between Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian officials), the ship was released on July 7 to go back to where it came from.

Ukraine expressed its disappointment with the Turkish government’s decision and the Turkish Ambassador in Kyiv was summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Turkey’s principal policy is not to allow shipments of grain coming from occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, on its territory. It is cooperating with Ukraine on its requests but several technical and judicial difficulties have complicated matters and made them more difficult.

On the other hand, Turkey is keen to implement its policies without getting into direct conflict with Russia, which would undermine its position as a party able to talk to both sides and its efforts in contributing to finding solutions to the problem.

Because of its geographic location in relation to Russia and Ukraine and its proximity to the war zone, together with so many sensitivities in bilateral relations and regional/international issues of common interest, Turkey is in a position where it has to walk on very thin ice.

Then, there is Russia's usual behavior where it uses and abuses, whenever and wherever it is possible. In this case, Russia is using food and energy as a counter measure against US and European sanctions.

In fact, Russia is applying the same policy in Syria. It vetoed the extension of the UN Security Council resolution for the continuation of cross border humanitarian aid from Turkey into northern Syria. Only after difficult negotiations - and no doubt certain giving and taking - did Russia accept an extension for six months. We will see whether the issue of grain corridors in the Black Sea was part of the bargain.

The world continues to suffer the consequences of Russia’s actions to realize its ambitions in an area (the near abroad, including Ukraine) it regards as its own and as part of a competition to prove “who is the greatest” among global powers.

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