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Black Sea Traffic Dwindles as Grain Talks Drag on in Turkey

Black Sea Grain exports
Inspections have slowed with no vessels inbound and 26 backed up outbound (Duncan Moore photo/UN courtesy of JCC)

Published May 11, 2023 3:14 PM by The Maritime Executive

The movement of ships along the Black Sea grain corridor has come to a virtual halt as talks led by Turkey seek to find a resolution to maintain the exports. While there was agreement to work to release vessels that have been stranded in Ukraine, the talks are dragging on with one week left till the deadline set by Russia. 

While UN officials are emphasizing that the May 18 date is an arbitrate date set by Russia and not agreed upon by all sides, they confirmed inbound vessels are not proceeding. The UN’s deputy spokesperson during a briefing earlier this week said that Ukraine reports 62 vessels are waiting to sail for its ports. They said eight applications have been set to the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul, but the JCC’s database shows that the last vessel cleared for the inbound voyage happened on May 6. During May, only 11 vessels have been cleared inbound with the rate dropping to around two ships per day.

“Last night, our colleagues at the office of the Black Seas Grain Initiative reported that they had conducted no inspections on Sunday and Monday,” according to the UN spokesperson. They reported that outbound inspections resumed on Tuesday. The spokesperson said that 26 vessels were in Turkish waters loaded with more than 1.1 million metric tons of grain and foodstuffs waiting for inspections and clearance to proceed. The JCC’s data shows that some of the ships departed Ukraine as long ago as April 27. Only one ship departed on Tuesday but the levels resumed to three to four ships a day on Wednesday and Thursday.

Russia imposed the May 18 deadline saying that the systems needed to be overhauled including permitting its agricultural bank to return to the banking system and opening of an ammonia export pipeline. Russian officials have consistently complained that they were not getting the same level of exports for their grains and fertilizers as Ukraine has received under the deal.

Turkey is hosting four-way talks between Russia, Ukraine, the UN, and Turkish ministers in hopes of finding a resolution. The UN reported today after the second day of talks that the issues discussed included the resumption of the Togliatti-Odessa ammonia pipeline, extending the length of the grain deal, and improvements in the operations of the JCC.

“The parties presented their views and agreed to engage with those elements going forward,” the UN said. The UN reports it will continue to work with all sides to achieve the continuation of the initiative.

After the first day of talks, Turkey’s Foreign Minister said he believed the grain agreement would be extended for two more months. However, after today’s talks, Turkey said the only agreement had been to continue discussions “at a technical level.”

Turkey highlighted a positive approach to the return of merchant ships and their crews stranded in Ukrainian ports due to the conflict. They indicated that there was positive movement to use the grain corridor as a model for the evacuation of foreign ships from Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials have been pushing for the extension and expansion of the program. Media reports however are saying that they have also developed alternate plans in the event the agreement can not be extended and no further ships are permitted to proceed inbound under the UN agreement.